This officer pointed to a July 2010 joint Israeli-Romanian exercise that tested Israeli air capabilities in mountainous areas -- like those the Israeli Air Force would face during a bombing mission against Iranian nuclear facilities that the Iranians have buried deep into mountainsides. U.S. military officers watched the exercises closely, not least because they objected to the large number of Israeli fighters operating from airbases of a NATO-member country, but also because 100 Israeli fighters overflew Greece as a part of a simulation of an attack on Iran. The Israelis eventually curtailed their Romanian military activities when the United States expressed discomfort with practicing the bombing of Iran from a NATO country, according to this senior military intelligence officer.
This same senior U.S. military intelligence officer speculated that the search and rescue component of those operations will be transferred to Azerbaijan -- "if they haven't been already." He added that Israel could also use Azerbaijan as a base for Israeli drones, either as part of a follow-on attack against Iran, or to mount aerial assessment missions in an attack's aftermath.
Azerbaijan clearly profits from its deepening relationship with Israel. The Jewish state is the second largest customer for Azeri oil - shipped through the Baku-Tibilisi-Ceyhan pipeline -- and its military trade allows Azerbaijan to upgrade its military after the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) slapped it with an arms embargo after its six-year undeclared war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Finally, modernizing the Azeri military sends a clear signal to Iran that interference in Azerbaijan could be costly.
"Azerbaijan has worries of its own," said Alexander Murinson, an Israeli-American scholar who wrote in an influential monograph on Israeli-Azeri ties for Tel Aviv's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "The Baku government has expelled Iranians preaching in their mosques, broken up pro-Iranian terrorist groups, and countered Iranian propaganda efforts among its population."
The deepening Azeri-Israeli relationship has also escalated Israel's dispute with Turkey, which began when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship destined for Gaza in May 2010, killing nine Turkish citizens. When Turkey demanded an apology, Israel not only refused, it abruptly canceled a $150 million contract to develop and manufacture drones with the Turkish military -- then entered negotiations with Azerbaijan to jointly manufacture 60 Israeli drones of varying types. The $1.6 billion arms agreement between Israel and Azerbaijan also left Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "sputtering in rage," according to a retired U.S. diplomat.
The centerpiece of the recent arms deal is Azerbaijan's acquisition of Israeli drones, which has only heightened Turkish anxieties further. In November 2011, the Turkish government retrieved the wreckage of an Israeli "Heron" drone in the Mediterranean, south of the city of Adana -- well inside its maritime borders. Erdogan's government believed the drone's flight had originated in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and demanded that Israel provide an explanation, but got none. "They lied; they told us the drone didn't belong to them," a former Turkish official told me last month. "But it had their markings."
Israel began cultivating strong relations with Baku in 1994, when Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq bought a large share of the nationally controlled telephone operating system. By 1995, Azerbaijan's marketplace was awash with Israeli goods: "Strauss ice cream, cell phones produced by Motorola's Israeli division, Maccabee beer, and other Israeli imports are ubiquitous," an Israeli reporter wrote in the Jerusalem Post.
In March 1996, then-Health Minister Ephraim Sneh became the first senior Israeli official to visit Baku -- but not the last. Benjamin Netanyahu made the trip in 1997, a high-level Knesset delegation in 1998, Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009, and Lieberman again, as foreign minister, this last February. Accompanying Peres on his visit to Baku was Avi Leumi, the CEO of Israel's Aeronautics Defense Systems and a former Mossad official who paved the way for the drone agreement.
U.S. intelligence officials began to take Israel's courtship of Azerbaijan seriously in 2001, one of the senior U.S. military intelligence officers said. In 2001, Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems contracted with Georgia's Tbilisi Aerospace Manufacturing to upgrade the Soviet SU-25 Scorpion, a close air-support fighter, and one of its first customers was Azerbaijan. More recently, Israel's Elta Systems has cooperated with Azerbaijan in building the TecSar reconnaissance satellite system and, in 2009, the two countries began negotiations over Azeri production of the Namer infantry fighting vehicle.