The sales 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.
JERUSALEM — Israeli defense officials 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.
Its most pressing concern is Iran’s nuclear program, and Israeli leaders have hinted broadly they would be prepared to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if they see no other way to keep Iran from building bombs.
Iran denies Israeli and Western claims it seeks to develop atomic weapons, and says its disputed nuclear program is designed to produce energy and medical isotopes.
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In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran’s nuclear program will take center stage in talks with U.S. and Canadian leaders. He is to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa on Friday and with President Obama in Washington on March 5.
Speaking to the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said a U.N. nuclear agency’s report last week buttressed Israel’s warnings that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear bomb. The agency said Iran has rapidly ramped up production of higher-grade enriched uranium over the last few months.
It was not clear whether the arms deal with Azerbaijan was connected to any potential Israeli plans to strike Iran. 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 Israel’s killing of nine Turks 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. The CIA World Factbook estimates Iranian Azeris make up nearly 16 million, or 24 percent of Iran’s population.
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.
This month, Iran’s foreign ministry accused Azerbaijan of allowing the Israeli spy agency Mossad to operate on its territory and providing a corridor for “terrorists” to kill members of Iranian nuclear scientists.
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. Iran has denied Azerbaijan’s latest charges of plotting to kill Israelis, but a diplomatic rupture is unlikely. Azerbaijan is an important path for Iranian goods in the Caucasus region, and both nations have signed accords among Caspian nations on energy, environmental and shipping policies.
Turks rally, recall
Tens of thousands of Turks, waving Azeri flags, rallied Sunday to mark the anniversary of a notorious attack that Azerbaijanis say killed hundreds of people during the six-year war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin made an impassioned nationalist speech at the rally in Istanbul, estimated at between 20,000 and 50,000 participants, which underlined the deep tensions with neighboring Armenia, even though fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 1994.
Ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia drove Azerbaijani troops out of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s during the war that killed some 30,000 people and sent 1 million fleeing. A cease-fire was reached in 1994, but the final status of the enclave, whose self-proclaimed sovereignty is not recognized internationally, is unresolved.
The dispute continues to damage both nations’ economies and the threat of renewed war hangs over the region.
Armenian forces do not deny the attack but say the death toll is exaggerated. The protesters, including members of labor unions and nationalist groups, filled Istanbul’s Taksim square Sunday to denounce Armenia and express solidarity with close Muslim ally Azerbaijan. Thousands of Turks also staged similar protests in Ankara and several other cities across Turkey.
Turkey and Armenia have been locked in a bitter dispute for decades over the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in the last years of the Ottoman Empire.
Efforts to normalize relations have been dealt a setback by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.