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What's the Israel-Azerbaijan connection?

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's visit to Azerbaijan underscores growing ties, including a $1.6 billion Israeli deal to supply Iran's neighbor with a wide range of military equipment.

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Azeri and Israeli officials have denied the story. In a recent news report on Israeli preparations for a possible strike on Iran broadcast by Israel’s Channel 2, unnamed Israeli officials said there were “better, more practical options” than airfields in Azerbaijan. The program didn’t elaborate on what those might be, however.

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That hasn’t made Iranians any happier about the Azeri-Israeli alliance. Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have worsened steadily, and earlier this year Iranian officials summoned Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Tehran to the Foreign Ministry over reports that the Azeri government was allowing Israeli Mossad agents to gather intelligence along the Azerbaijan-Iran border.

In Azerbaijan, military analysts have speculated that access to Azeri airfields could be intended for drone missions over Iran, rather than a strike.

“There have been Western powers looking at the airfields in Azerbaijan for a long time and wanting to use them. Israel may have found a way,” said Arastun Orujlu, a former Azeri counterintelligence officer who’s the director of the East-West Research Center in Baku. He said it was well-known that Israel produced some parts for its drones in Azerbaijan and kept a large fleet outside Baku.

Azerbaijan has had Israeli drones since at least 2008, when they were first seen in a public parade. In September 2011, an Azeri drone of Israeli origin was shot down over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that’s the subject of a dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. That same month, the Azeri government announced that Israel’s Aeronautics Defense Systems had licensed it to build drones based on the Israeli model.

Under a deal struck this February, Azerbaijan is expected to acquire 60 Israeli-designed unmanned aerial vehicles.

Speaking to the Azeri news station News.Az, Azerbaijani political expert Rovshan Ibrahimov said Lieberman’s visit to Baku this week was the most recent in a long line of moves by Israel to threaten Iran through Azerbaijan.

“The arrival of Lieberman is part of the situation escalated around Iran by Israel. Here are some aspects of the fact that Israel is trying to show Tehran that it can at any time strike Iran, and for this makes certain steps to ensure the support of its allies in this plan,” he said.

Lieberman denied that his trip was meant to intimidate. He said his meetings with top officials in Baku, including President Ilham Aliyev, focused on bilateral relations, although his office released a statement that said Iran also had been on the agenda.

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