Israel, Azerbaijan sign $1.6bn arms deal
Jerusalem - Israeli defence officials on Sunday confirmed $1.6bn in deals to sell drones as well as anti-aircraft and missile defence 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 labouring 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 programme, and Israeli leaders have hinted broadly that they would be prepared to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if they see no other way to keep Tehran from building bombs.
Iran denies Israeli and Western claims it seeks to develop atomic weapons, and says its disputed nuclear programme is designed to produce energy and medical isotopes.
In Jerusalem, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Iran's nuclear programme will take centre 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 defence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not at liberty to discuss defence deals.Likely coincidental
Danny Yatom, a former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, 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.
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.
Earlier 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.
Azerbaijan dismissed the Iranian claims as "slanderous lies".
Israeli leaders have hinted at covert campaigns against Iran without directly admitting involvement.