Israeli defense officials on Sunday confirmed $1.6 billion in deals to sell drones as well as anti-aircraft and missile defense systems to Azerbaijan, bringing sophisticated Israeli technology to the doorstep of archenemy Iran.
The sales by state-run Israel Aerospace Industries come at a delicate time. Israel has been laboring hard to form diplomatic alliances in a region that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran's nuclear program will take center stage in his upcoming talks with US and Canadian leaders. Netanyahu is to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa on Friday and with President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday.
It was not clear whether the arms deal with Azerbaijan was connected to any potential Israeli plans to strike Iran. The Israeli defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not at liberty to discuss defense deals.
Danny Yatom, a former head of Mossad, said the timing of the deal was likely coincidental. "Such a deal ... takes a long period of time to become ripe," he told The Associated Press.
He said Israel would continue to sell arms to its friends. "If it will help us in challenging Iran, it is for the better," he said.
Azerbaijan-Iran rupture unlikely
Israel's ties with Azerbaijan, a Muslim country that became independent with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, have grown as its once-strong strategic relationship with another Iranian neighbor, Turkey, has deteriorated, most sharply over the Israeli raid that left nine Turks dead aboard a ship that sought to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010.
For Israeli intelligence, there is also a possible added benefit from Azerbaijan: Its significant cross-border contacts and trade with Iran's large ethnic Azeri community.
For that same reason, as Iran's nuclear showdown with the West deepens, the Islamic Republic sees the Azeri frontier as a weak point, even though both countries are mostly Shiite Muslim.
Earlier this month, Iran's Foreign Ministry accused Azerbaijan of allowing Mossad agents to operate on its territory and providing a corridor for "terrorists" to kill members of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Azerbaijan dismissed the Iranian claims as "slanderous lies." Israeli leaders have hinted at covert campaigns against Iran without directly admitting involvement.
Israel, meanwhile, recently claimed authorities foiled Iranian-sponsored attacks against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan. Such claims have precedents: In 2008, Azeri officials said they thwarted a plot to explode car bombs near the Israeli Embassy; two Lebanese men were later convicted in the bombing attempt. A year earlier, Azerbaijan convicted 15 people in connection with an alleged Iranian-linked spy network accused of passing intelligence on Western and Israeli activities.
Iran has denied Azerbaijan's latest charges of plotting to kill Israelis, but a diplomatic rupture is unlikely. Azerbaijan is an important pathway for Iranian goods in the Caucasus region and both nations have signed accords among Caspian nations on energy, environmental and shipping policies.
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