It's clear why the Israelis prize their ties to Azerbaijan -- and why the Iranians are infuriated by them. The Azeri military has four abandoned, Soviet-era airfields that would potentially be available to the Israelis, as well as four airbases for their own aircraft, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance 2011.
The U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials told me they believe that Israel has gained access to these airbases through a series of quiet political and military understandings. "I doubt that there's actually anything in writing," added a senior retired American diplomat who spent his career in the region. "But I don't think there's any doubt -- if Israeli jets want to land in Azerbaijan after an attack, they'd probably be allowed to do so. Israel is deeply embedded in Azerbaijan, and has been for the last two decades."
The prospect of Israel using Azerbaijan's airfields for an Iranian attack first became public in December 2006, when retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Oded Tira angrily denounced the George W. Bush administration's lack of action on the Iranian nuclear program. "For our part," he wrote in a widely cited commentary, "we should also coordinate with Azerbaijan the use of airbases in its territory and also enlist the support of the Azeri minority in Iran." The "coordination" that Tira spoke of is now a reality, the U.S. sources told me.
Access to such airfields is important for Israel, because it would mean that Israeli F-15I and F-16I fighter-bombers would not have to refuel midflight during a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, but could simply continue north and land in Azerbaijan. Defense analyst David Isenberg describes the ability to use Azeri airfields as "a significant asset" to any Israel strike, calculating that the 2,200-mile trip from Israel to Iran and back again would stretch Israel's warplanes to their limits. "Even if they added extra fuel tanks, they'd be running on fumes," Isenberg told me, "so being allowed access to Azeri airfields would be crucial."
Former CENTCOM commander Gen. Joe Hoar simplified Israel's calculations: "They save themselves 800 miles of fuel," he told me in a recent telephone interview. "That doesn't guarantee that Israel will attack Iran, but it certainly makes it more doable."
Using airbases in Azerbaijan would ensure that Israel would not have to rely on its modest fleet of air refuelers or on its refueling expertise, which a senior U.S. military intelligence officer described as "pretty minimal." Military planners have monitored Israeli refueling exercises, he added, and are not impressed. "They're just not very good at it."
Retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who conducted a study for a think tank affiliated with the Swedish Ministry of Defense of likely Israeli attack scenarios in March 2010, said that Israel is capable of using its fleet of F-15I and F-16I warplanes in a strike on Iran without refueling after the initial top-off over Israel. "It's not weight that's a problem," he said, "but the numbers of weapons that are mounted on each aircraft." Put simply, the more distance a fighter-bomber is required to travel, the more fuel it will need and the fewer weapons it can carry. Shortening the distance adds firepower, and enhances the chances for a successful strike.
"The problem is the F-15s," Gardiner said, "who would go in as fighters to protect the F-16 bombers and stay over the target." In the likely event that Iran scrambled its fighters to intercept the Israeli jets, he continued, the F-15s would be used to engage them. "Those F-15s would burn up fuel over the target, and would need to land."
Could they land in Azerbaijan? "Well, it would have to be low profile, because of political sensitivities, so that means it would have to be outside of Baku and it would have to be highly developed." Azerbaijan has such a place: the Sitalcay airstrip, which is located just over 40 miles northwest of Baku and 340 miles from the Iranian border. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sitalcay's two tarmacs and the adjacent facilities were used by a squadron of Soviet Sukhoi SU-25 jets -- perfect for Israeli fighters and bombers. "Well then," Gardiner said, after the site was described to him, "that would be the place."
Even if Israeli jets did not land in Azerbaijan, access to Azeri airfields holds a number of advantages for the Israel Defense Forces. The airfields not only have facilities to service fighter-bombers, but a senior U.S. military intelligence officer said that Israel would likely base helicopter rescue units there in the days just prior to a strike for possible search and rescue missions.