The Azerbaijani National Security Ministry announced that 22 people have been arrested on suspicion of spying for Iran, AFP reported Wednesday.
“Twenty-two citizens of Azerbaijan were arrested by the National Security Ministry for cooperating with the Iranian Sepah [the Iranian Revolutionary Guards],” the Ministry said, according to AFP. “Firearms, cartridges, explosives and espionage equipment were found during the arrest.”
The 22 individuals were allegedly instructed to “commit terrorist acts against the US, Israeli and other Western states’ embassies and the embassies’ employees.”
Azerbaijani authorities did not clarify if these were new arrests – since Azerbaijani authorities did not release the date of the arrests – or confirmation of earlier arrests made in February.
Situated between Europe and Asia, and with Iran straddling its southern border, Azerbaijan has recently become a strategic front in a war of subterfuge between Israel and Iran, with reports that both have activated intelligence operatives in this the largest country in the Caucasus region.
Arrests come amid attempts to patch up Iran-Azeri relations
The announcement of the arrests came a day after Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev met with senior Iranian officials in an effort to prevent a further deterioration in relations with Iran due to Azerbaijan’s recent crackdown on Iran-linked terror plots, and its burgeoning ties with Israel.
Iran has grown increasingly nervous since it’s northern neighbor signed a multi-billion dollar arms deal with Israel last month, whereby Israel will supply Azerbaijan with drones and missile defense systems.
“We will not allow Azerbaijan’s soil to be used against Iran under any conditions,” Abiyev pledged after meeting with his Iranian counterpart Ahmad Vahidi in Tehran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the official Islamic Republic News Agency that “[w]e are sure that we will face no problem from our brother and neighbor Azerbaijan.”
Coming on the heels of these magnanimous proclamations, the arrests are likely to inflame tensions and nullify any good will the high-level meetings may have fostered between the two countries.