Two advanced Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jets have been ‘permanently stationed’ in Azerbaijan, UK-based Arabic news site Elaph has reported citing a senior Israeli source.
The report, published on 2 October, comes at a time of spiralling tension between Azerbaijan and Iran, with Iran making several veiled threats towards Azerbaijan and accusing the country of hosting Israeli forces.
The F-35 is a fifth-generation American-made multirole fighter with stealth technology, far more sophisticated than any aircraft possessed by either Iran or Azerbaijan.
On 2 October, Iran held large-scale military drills in the north of the country close to the Azerbaijani border. Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian told a local news channel the same day that there were ‘Zionists’ present in Azerbaijan during ‘failed attempts […by] terrorist groups’ to approach the Iran-Azerbaijan border.
‘Those who dig a hole for their brothers will be the first to fall into it’, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted the following day.
The source reportedly told Elaph that Israel was prepared to provide air support if conflict broke out between Azerbaijan and Iran, and that more fighters could be sent to the country if needed.
OC Media was not able to independently verify the report. Elaph which published the claim, is based in the UK and was founded by Saudi Arabian publisher and businessperson Othman Al Omeir, though the site is reportedly blocked in Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations. The author, Majdi Al-Halabi, is a well known Israeli Druze journalist who has previously interviewed several high-profile Israeli politicians, including a chief of staff of the Israeli army, according to the Times of Israel.
Azerbaijan has reacted defiantly to the statements from Tehran. On 4 October, President Ilham Aliyev said he would not ‘allow anyone to fabricate baseless slander against us’.
‘Let them open their eyes and see. Where did they see Israel here?’, he said during a visit to the Jabrayil region, close to Iran.
On 5 October, Azerbaijan closed the Baku office of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s representative in Azerbaijan, Ojag Necat — supposedly for reasons of COVID-19 safety.
Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have also taken a hit since Azerbaijan began stopping and levying customs fees on Iranian cargo lorries travelling through Azerbaijani controlled portions of Armenia’s Goris-Kapan road.
Azerbaijan took control of roughly 20 kilometres of the road, which crosses the internationally-recognised Armenia-Azerbaijan border, after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijani authorities have accused the trucks of ferrying goods to Nagorno-Karabakh.
This is not the first time reports of Israeli jets in Azerbaijan have emerged. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine cited four senior American diplomats and military intelligence officers as saying that the US believed Israel had been granted access to an airbase in Azerbaijan.
In July 2020, Azerbaijan denied that its airspace was used for a drone attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israeli officials frequently make statements vowing to thwart any attempt by Iran to engineer a nuclear bomb. A number of assassinations of nuclear scientists and cyber-attacks on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities have been widely attributed to Israel.
Israel and Azerbaijan enjoy close relations, with Israel selling billions of dollars worth of military equipment to Azerbaijan, including sophisticated drones.
A 2009 US Embassy cable leaked via Wikileaks reported that the two countries enjoyed even closer relations than publicly admitted, quoting President Aliyev as describing relations ‘like an iceberg, nine-tenths of it is below the surface’. The cable said that ‘both rank Iran as an existential security threat’.