- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
February was not a good month for Azeri-Iranian relations. Iran accused Azerbaijan (mapped on right) of helping Israeli spies who were targeting Iranian scientists, while Azerbaijan raised hackles in Tehran by reportedly buying $1.6 billion worth of drones and anti-aircraft and missile defense systems from Israel. Earlier in the month, some Azeri lawmakers even suggested changing the country’s name to Northern Azerbaijan to highlight the fact that the Azeri nation is divided between an independent state and a province in northern Iran.
So it’s surprising to see reports in the Iranian press today of Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiyev’s warm reception in Tehran. Most notably, Abiyev promised to prevent any country from using Azerbaijan as a launching pad for an attack on neighboring Iran, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency:
“The Republic of Azerbaijan, like always in the past, will never permit any country to take advantage of its land, or air, against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which we consider our brother and friend country,” he underscored.
Iran meter: Is an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities now less likely, with Azerbaijan out of play? Not exactly. True, Azerbaijan may be a theater in a larger Israeli-Iranian shadow conflict (in February, Azerbaijan claimed to have broken up an Iranian plot against Israeli targets in the capital, Baku). But Azerbaijan doesn’t figure into discussions of how Israel might strike Iran.
As the Associated Press notes this week, Israel is probably weighing three risky flight paths to Iran through Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey (for some great graphics on these scenarios, see here and here):
The shortest, most direct flight would be to cross over neighboring Jordan and through Iraq.
Neither country has the capability to stop Israeli warplanes from crossing through its airspace. But this would deeply embarrass them.
Such an operation would raise the likelihood of a diplomatic spat with Jordan, Israel’s closest ally in the Arab world, and potentially expose it to Iranian retaliation. Jordanian officials refused to comment on how the government would react if Israel uses its airspace.
A second route would be to fly south and through Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have no relations with Israel, and while they feel deeply threatened by a nuclear Iran, any signs of cooperation with the Jewish state would unleash fierce criticism throughout the Arab world. The Saudis would also be an easy target for an Iranian counter-strike.
The last possibility would be crossing through Turkey, as Israel illicitly did in the 2007 airstrike in Syria. But Turkey is believed to have upgraded its radar systems since then, and Israel’s relations with Turkey, once a close ally, have deteriorated.
A Turkish official said it was “out of the question” for Israel to use Turkish airspace. He said the jets would be “brought down” if Israel attempted to use the airspace without permission. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.
In sum, the Azeri defense minister’s statements do more to patch up relations with Tehran than change the calculus about an Israeli strike.
For added reassurance, see Britain’s decision to join the United States in discouraging war talk and these op-eds today on why U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be bluffing with their tough rhetoric on Iran. For now, the war dial is staying exactly where it is.