Is the United States leaking information in order to discourage an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities? That’s what some experts are saying in the wake of a controversial piece published last week in Foreign Policy magazine, which reported that Israel may be intending to use Azerbaijan as a base of operations in the event of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
A number of Israeli journalists, led by Ron Ben-Yishai, one of the country’s esteemed security correspondents, claimed that Mark Perry’s article was clear evidence the White House was leaking critical information about Israel’s strategy in order to pressure Jerusalem to abandon its war plans and wait for the administration’s sanctions to bring the Iranian regime to its knees. U.S. officials have been clear about the dangers of an Israeli attack, a point that they’ve also made through other, less obvious channels. According to Ben-Yishai, the goal of all of this is to “make it more difficult for Israeli decision-makers to order the IDF to carry out a strike.”
There are plenty of American experts who see it the same way. “The leak is entirely consistent with what we know about Obama’s view on the Iranian nuclear weapons program,” John Bolton, former ambassador the United Nations, told me in a phone interview. Bolton argues that the White House has purposefully stripped Israel of its tactical surprise. “First [Defense Secretary] Panetta gave a likely date for a prospective attack, April or May, and now unnamed sources leak a likely place where the attacks might be launched from.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition expressed its disapproval of the alleged White House leak. “It is clear from recent press reports that the Obama Administration has moved from quiet diplomacy to lightly veiled attacks in the media to prevent the Israelis from taking action against Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities,” said executive director Matt Brooks.
But the administration denies that it is leaking, and a senior administration official even said the White House would gladly prosecute the source of the leaks—if it knew who was doing it. Former senior administration official Dennis Ross told New York Post columnist Benny Avni that he doubts that “the administration is conducting an ‘orchestrated’ leaking campaign,” and instead suspects that “some individuals, who don’t want Israel to do this” are feeding information to the press for their own reasons.
Perry’s story doesn’t offer any clues, since he attributes his information to unnamed senior diplomats and military intelligence officers. So, either his sources are high-level officials who don’t want a reputation for loose lips, or they’re not major players and revealing their names would show that they’re not in position to know what they claim to know. Worse, publishing their names might reveal that, like Perry himself, these are figures around the Beltway best known for their efforts trying to damage the U.S.-Israel alliance.
But let’s put aside Israel’s much-discussed relationship with the Obama Administration for a moment and focus instead on its alliance with Azerbaijan. It’s certainly not news to Iranian leaders that, in the wake of the Cold War, Israel sought a relationship with Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority, predominantly Shia country. Since the early 1990s, Israel has purchased Azerbaijani oil and gas and, in exchange, offered medical, technological, and agricultural expertise. Most significantly, Israel has also sold Azerbaijan weapons. Presumably, Iranian intelligence knew all of this long before Perry’s story.
Both Jerusalem and Baku see Iran as a threat—one that’s perhaps even more potentially dangerous for Azerbaijan since 20 percent of the population of its much larger Iranian neighbor, including Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, is ethnically Azeri. If the Iranian leadership is concerned that their ethnic Azeri population is a source of potential instability, they have to make sure that Azerbaijan is kept off balance.
Israel and Azerbaijan also share ambivalent relations with Russia, which has armed some of Jerusalem’s enemies, like Iran and Syria, as well as some of Baku’s, including Armenian guerrillas in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region over which Azerbaijan fought a war with Armenia as the Soviet Union was crumbling. Indeed, Baku believed that Israel’s connections in Washington might help Azerbaijan counter the powerful Armenian lobby.
Therefore, there are at least three players working through agents of influence that might have an interest in coloring Azerbaijan’s standing in Washington: Iran, Russia, and Armenia. Even though these three states have active lobbies in the United States, this interpretation may sound farfetched—at least to those accustomed to thinking that Israel is the only state that has a hand in shaping American Middle East politics. But consider what some analysts believe is the more preposterous option, which happens to be the premise of Perry’s scoop: Azerbaijan is renting itself out to Israel for a full-scale attack on a big neighbor with a nuclear program that even Israeli planners think they can only set back rather than destroy.
“I think the story is absurd,” Elliot Abrams, deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush, told me. “It suggests not that Azerbaijan might allow or wink at a Mossad team, not that it might allow an IAF [Israeli Air Force] plane that was in distress to land, but that a hundred IAF jets could use Azerbaijan—that it would be the heart of the attack on Iran. Who could possibly believe that?” As Abrams pointed out, there’s no way Azerbaijan could claim innocence in an attack of that scale. “Why would the Azeris make their neighbor, their larger and stronger neighbor, into a permanent enemy by joining in an attack on it?”
But why does it seem that the Israeli security establishment, via press surrogates, is so unnerved? “One theory,” said Abrams, “is that it could be deflection”—or misdirection. In other words, if the Israelis make a lot of noise about Azerbaijan, they are forcing the Iranians to spread their resources even further by planning for as many scenarios as possible. “Or maybe,” suggested Abrams, “ the Israelis are worried that the next thing that comes out is closer to truth.”
Abrams sees this potentially fake leak as part of a larger pattern. “I was suspicious of this because some of these so-called leaks against the Obama Administration are simply false. For instance, during the Netanyahu visit, there was a story that the Israelis asked for the U.S.‘s larger and newer bunker busters but was turned down. I believe that’s just plain false. Those are massive 30,000 pound bombs meant for a B-2 bomber, and they cannot be delivered by any plane the Israelis have,” he said. “One thing that these leaks have in common is to make you mad at Obama. But this doesn’t bring you closer to who is responsible for leaking it.”
Presumably, hurting a president who has spoken of putting some distance between the United States and Israel was the last thing that Mark Perry and his sources had in mind. But there are obviously plenty of actors, throughout American and Israeli politics, who are eager to see Obama weakened in an election year. Deception is part of war, but so is clarity. Whoever is responsible for the information conveyed in Perry’s story, and for whatever purposes it’s been put to, in the end it’s the Islamic Republic that stands to gain the most when the U.S.-Israel alliance is strained.