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Is Washington undermining Israel's campaign against Iran?

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 5, 2012.

Jason Reed/Reuters/Jason Reed/Reuters

A secret Israeli-Azerbaijan pact giving the Jewish state use of old Soviet air bases to attack Iran's nuclear sites revealed by Foreign Policy magazine exposed a bold military option to the vexed problem of getting bomb-heavy warplanes to their distant targets.

Or was the story all part of a complex and devious disinformation campaign by the Obama administration to box Israel in, or one targeted at the president?

From a military standpoint, the strategy was simple, if audacious. Israeli warplanes would refuel in Azerbaijan before the final low-level dash across the Caspian to targets in Iran.

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Predictably, Israeli and Azeri officials flatly denied the story which – according to Foreign Policy – was based on senior U.S. intelligence and military sources.

Another denial came from a similarly unidentified Obama administration official, who said the White House had "no interest" in leaks of that type, adding it would "gladly prosecute" those who divulged the details supposed Israeli attack option using Azeri air bases – if they knew who they were.

For some that seemed a touch too disingenuous.

In the murky and multi-layered world of deliberate leaks and pressure by disinformation, the White House denial was interpreted as a clever piece in the Obama administration complex strategy to box Israel in. In that scenario, the message is that Washington – first by leaking details and then denying it was leaking – knows what Israel is up to and wants no part of it, at least until after the November elections.

Accusations and denials started flying in all directions.

John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration said the Obama White House was deliberately undermining Israel by exposing its military strategy. ""This leak … is part of the administration's campaign against an Israeli attack," he said.

In Israel, the story produced outrage. Military analysts lined up to dismiss the Azeri air base option as unworkable. They also noted that relative small and weak Azerbaijan would not want to pick a fight with its much bigger, more powerful, neighbour, certainly not at the behest of Israel, despite good relations with the Jewish state and a recently signed multi-billion dollar arms sale.

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But the prime target for Israeli fury was Mark Perry, the author of the original Foreign Policy article. He was denounced a sometime 'unofficial' adviser to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Perry, "a veteran anti-Israeli warrior has simply taken advantage of the negligent naivety of Foreign Policy editors in order to plant one more of his cloak-and-dagger patchwork stories aimed at undermining the state he intensely detests," wrote Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari in The Times of Israel. "The fact that Azerbaijan maintains close relations with Israel – including big arms and oil deals – does not justify flights of fantasy."

Back in America, where everything is political in an election year, David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, demanded public apologies from Mr. Bolton and the Republican Jewish Coalition. "They should be ashamed of themselves for pushing this dangerous and offensive smear of the Obama administration for purely partisan purposes," he said.

Whatever the military merits of staging an attack on Iran using Azeri air bases – and the notion at least matches Israel's long track record of audacious, improbable, daring and often successful strikes – the option now seems dead. Any element of surprise is gone and, with it, any vestige of Azeri deniability.

For Israeli war planners, the problem remains. Unlike its 1981 attack of an Iraqi nuclear site, or the 2007 strike on a Syrian reactor, Iran's multiple nuclear targets are dispersed, heavily defended, sometimes deeply buried and all much further away. A bombing campaign, not a single strike, would be required and without air bases closer to the targets, Israeli warplanes would need aerial refuelling multiple times and therefore over-flight permission from Turkey or Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

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