As the showdown over Iranian nuclear ambitions intensifies, political analysts in Azerbaijan are urging the government to deepen the country’s ties with Israeli and Western security structures. Officials in Baku have not commented on how Azerbaijan intends to respond to the rising global tension connected to the Iranian nuclear issue. But a series of arrests suggests President Ilham Aliyev’s administration is cracking down on sources of perceived Iranian influence in Azerbaijan. Long an anomaly in the Muslim world, Israeli-Azerbaijani ties run the gamut from telecommunications investments to sales of military technology and equipment and oil. On February 11, those ties acquired a new public dimension with a Times of London article that claimed that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, has a substantial presence in Azerbaijan to gather intelligence about Iran. Tehran took matters a step further and claimed that Mossad operatives in Azerbaijan allegedly worked out plans to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists – a claim Baku angrily denounced on February 13 as “a lie, fabrication and libel.” Tehran seemed to raise the stakes on February 21, when Baku announced that an Iranian helicopter had violated Azerbaijani airspace at the border town of Astara, the Turan news agency reported. Such incidents should not intimidate Azerbaijan into backing away from Israel, said Vafa Guluzade, a former presidential foreign policy aide. “Baku should cooperate with Western powers to reveal Iranian intelligence networks when their activity really harms Azerbaijan’s security,” asserted Guluzade, who worked during the early post-Soviet era for former presidents Ayaz Mütalibov, Abulfaz Elchibey and Heydar Aliyev. Iran, a country with which Azerbaijan shares deep cultural and historical ties, is routinely suspected of attempting to stir up trouble in Baku – either via protests by the country’s practicing Shi’a Muslims, or through more violent steps such as an alleged recent assassination plot against Israeli Ambassador to Baku Michael Lotem. Guluzade characterized Tehran’s uproar over the Times article as part of that same supposed trend, an alleged attempt “to pressure Baku and restrict its cooperation with Israel.” One former deputy minister of national security echoed the call for closer ties with Western intelligence operations, arguing that Azerbaijani law-enforcement agencies are not capable on their own of thwarting suspected Iranian activities. “I would welcome deeper cooperation [by Azerbaijani law enforcement] with their colleagues from the United States, Turkey and other countries,” said Sulhaddin Akper, director of the Baku-based Center for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation. Alper conceded that “[o]f course, both Israeli and Iranian intelligence services are active in Azerbaijan,” and predicted that “this activity will increase further, taking into consideration the situation in the region.” At the same time, he scoffed that the notion that Azerbaijan would cooperate with Mossad to target Iranian nuclear scientists, saying such action would be “against our national interests.” Elhan Shahinoglu, director of the Atlas research center, agreed, adding that, aside from intensifying alleged ongoing cooperation “with US, Turkish and Israeli intelligence agencies,” Baku should also increase its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On February 15, a few days after the Iranian protest note, President Ilham Aliyev visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he expressed interest in making long-term financial contributions to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund, and emphasized Azerbaijan’s provision of over-flights, troops, cargo transit and mine-clearing for the alliance’s campaign in Afghanistan. Details about the size of any potential fund contributions were not released. Meanwhile, Baku appears to be taking on its own what might be termed “preventive measures” against Iran. In the suburban village of Nardaran, a Baku suburb known for its Islamic conservatism, police over the past four days have arrested more than 15 people, including Niazi Kerimov, brother of Natig Kerimov, a member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan. Government officials have long alleged that the party, banned since 1996, receives Iranian funding. The group is the only political entity in Azerbaijan to have denounced Baku’s ties with Israel. No reason has been given for the arrests, nor has the government body responsible for the arrests been identified, Turan reported. In a February 20 statement, the Islamic Party called the arrests “politically motivated.” Other high profile arrests include a prominent theologian, Haji Akhund Ilham, the mullah of a mosque in Bina, outside Baku, and a scholar educated at an Iranian seminary, Turan reported. The Ministry of National Security declined to comment on Ilham’s February 17 arrest. Also on February 17, Baku police detained Anar Bayramly, a local freelance correspondent for Iranian broadcast media, including the satellite news channel Sahar. Bayramly was charged him with heroin possession and resisting police. Bayramly’s brother, Eldar, has denied the allegations of drug possession, and told Turan that his brother had been repeatedly summoned to a local police station over the past few weeks and questioned about his political views. Bayramly’s lawyer, Anar Gasimli, told EurasiaNet.org that he has not yet been able to meet with his client, or with state investigators. He added that he had no official information about the charges against the journalist. The Iranian Embassy in Baku has denounced the arrest and warned that it could damage relations with Tehran. But Azerbaijan, wedged between Iran to the south, Russia to the north and a hostile Armenia to the west, long ago learned to play its diplomatic cards carefully. While criticizing Iran for its alleged “anti-Azerbaijani activity,” Parliamentary Speaker Ogtay Asadov on February 14 underlined that Azerbaijan would never allow its territory to be used against Iran. The pledge, often made by President Aliyev as well, is a familiar one. “There is no reason why this position should change,” said Shahinoglu, the political analyst.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.