Azerbaijan has arrested 22 people on suspicion of plotting attacks on the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Baku on behalf of neighboring Iran, the national security ministry said Wednesday.
“Twenty-two citizens of Azerbaijan have been arrested by the national security ministry for cooperating with the Iranian Sepah,” it said in a statement, referring to the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
“On orders of the Sepah they were to commit terrorist acts against the U.S., Israeli and other Western states’ embassies and the embassies’ employees.”
The ministry said the suspects were recruited from 1999 onwards and trained in the use of weapons and spy techniques at military camps in Iran to enable them to gather information on foreign embassies, organizations and companies in Azerbaijan and stage attacks.
“Firearms, cartridges, explosives and espionage equipment were found during the arrest,” the statement said, without specifying when or how the suspects were detained.
They have been charged with treason and the purchase and possession of weapons and explosives.
The ministry said that a Revolutionary Guards officer named Akbar Pakravesh gave the Azerbaijani recruits equipment and money and met them in Damascus and Moscow to avoid suspicion.
“The Azerbaijanis began spying on diplomatic missions, companies and public organizations including the Jewish center Sohnut, a U.S. fast food restaurant, British oil company BP-Azerbaijan’s office and other objects in Baku,” it said.
But the accusations were rejected by the brother of one of those arrested, Niyazi Kerimov, who comes from the town of Nardaran which is seen as a hotbed of Islamic activism in Azerbaijan.
“I believe that the allegations against my brother are unfounded and fabricated,” Natiq Kerimov told Radio Azadliq.
Tensions between the Islamic republic and mainly Muslim but officially secular Azerbaijan have risen in recent months, with a series of arrests in Baku of attack plot suspects with alleged links to Tehran.
Iran has also been angered by ex-Soviet Azerbaijan’s ties to Israel and its reported purchase of hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons from the Jewish state.
Tehran last month accused Azerbaijan of working with Israel’s spy services and helping assassins who murdered Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years — a claim rejected by Baku as “slander”.
This week however the neighbors appeared to be taking steps to improve relations as public declarations of friendship were made in Tehran during a visit by Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Safar Abiyev.
“We are sure that we will face no problem from our brother and neighbour Azerbaijan,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying on Monday after meeting Abiyev.
Abiyev was quoted as saying that “we consider Iran as a friend and brother.”
The uneasy relations between the neighbors are complicated by the presence of a huge ethnic Azeri minority in Iran, which far outnumbers Azerbaijan’s own population of 9.2 million.