BY JOSHUA KUCERA
Azerbaijan has reached a deal with Israel to buy the Iron Dome air defense system, a senior Azerbaijani government official has announced. But questions remain over how useful the celebrated system really is for Azerbaijan and whether it would be worth the cost.
Over the last couple of months, there have been a number of reports that a deal like this was in the works, and last month this blog featured a post on how those reports probably weren’t true. There are technical reasons that the Iron Dome won’t do what Azerbaijan wants. And the state-of-the-art system would be a budget buster for Azerbaijan, which has been forced by falling oil prices to slash expenditures, not least on the military.
But on December 17, the Minister of Defense Industry Yaver Jamalov gave a press conference and announced that the deal had been made. “The Azerbaijani Defense Industry Ministry and the relevant Israeli body have reached the agreement on procurement of the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system,” Jamalov said.
So is this boondoggle really happening? There are a number of noteworthy things about the announcement. For one, it was made by Jamalov, whose brief is Azerbaijan’s domestic arms industry, not purchases from abroad. Second, he doesn’t appear to have said anything more than the above, according to local media reports, and seems to have spent more time talking about plans to build an electromagnetic pulse weapon (which would be aimed at knocking out an enemy electrical system) and ballistic missiles. One would expect a landmark deal like this to be rolled out more ceremoniously.
The timing also is curious. The announcement was made just a few days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Baku. No doubt Netanyahu and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev discussed the weapons deals behind closed doors, but if this Iron Dome deal was done that would have seemed to have been a logical time to announce it.
The announcement also was made only a day after Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s visit to Baku. Rogozin’s portfolio is arms sales and Russian media reported ahead of the visit that he was going to come to talk about Armenia’s recent acquisition of Iskander ballistic missiles. The Iskanders seem to have engendered some panic in Baku, with the Azerbaijani government scrambling to find an air defense system that can handle them. It does seem plausible that the Azerbaijanis would want to discuss this deal in person with Rogozin, as it will no doubt be poorly received in Moscow.
The Iron Dome is a rare weapons system that is a global brand, having become famous for its success in stopping Palestinian rockets from landing in Israeli cities. That household name status is no doubt attractive to Baku, which needs a prestige boost amid its economic crisis. We’ll have to wait for more details to emerge, and it’s possible there are some behind-the-scenes reasons why this makes more sense than it appears on the surface. Stay tuned.
This op-ed was originally published on Eurasianet.org on December 18, 2016.