Azerbaijan’s State Security Service (DTX) announced last week it had busted an Iranian spy network and arrested five Azerbaijani citizen on charges of treason. The five alleged spies had been gathering information about the Azerbaijani military, including its drones, and the country’s energy infrastructure. At least two of the suspects had received religious training in Iran.
The announcement came amid heightened tensions between the two neighbors. Early this month, the DTX announced the arrest of 19 people said to have been trained and funded by Iran’s intelligence services to carry out unspecified acts that would be “in violation of state security interests.”
Iran using Religious Schools to Recruit Spies
A November 14 statement by Azerbaijan’s state security agency DTX identified one of the alleged spies as Zahir Askarov. It said Askarov worked as a ship captain in the Caspian Sea Oil Flee, and was recruited by representatives of Iran’s intelligence services during religious training in the Iranian city of Qom. Askarov “collected information about the companies and representative offices of foreign countries operating in our country, the location and time of the exercises conducted by the Navy in the Caspian Sea, and the cargoes transported to the oil rigs in order to use them to the detriment of the sovereignty and defense capability” of Azerbaijan, according to the statement.
Another Azerbaijani citizen arrested was identified as Bakhtiyar Aghazadh. The DTX said he had gone to Iran for religious education and, while there, he agreed to cooperate with the Islamic Republic in exchange for money. He allegedly provided Iranian intelligence services with information about “offices of foreign countries operating in Azerbaijan, public political processes occurred in the country, military units, their locations and assignments, as well as military staff.”
Azerbaijan has a majority Shia Muslim population like Iran. The Islamic Republic has long used religion as a tool to infiltrate and influence Shias in Azerbaijan, offering free education at seminaries, accepting Azerbaijani students at Iranian universities, sending Shia clerics to the neighboring country, providing funds to various organizations in Azerbaijan that support the Islamic Republic, among other things.
The DTX said another suspect, named Elnur Rasulov, agreed to cooperate with Iranian intelligence agents while he was in Iran in 2018 for health treatment. Together with a relative named Aref Rasulov, the suspect passed information about Azerbaijan’s drones, tanks and other military equipment, as well as “strategic and military facilities” by sending photos and videos to Iran’s special services through the WhatsApp instant messaging system.
The DTX said it had also determined that a man named Jafarzadeh Mirhafiz provided Iran with “information detrimental to the Republic of Azerbaijan’s state security and defense capabilities specifying the location of the military objects and other related information through the Telegram messenger.” It said Mirhafiz was issued an arrest warrant in 2018 by a court order and was later added to the international wanted list.
On November 1, Azerbaijan said it had arrested 19 citizens accused of being trained and funded by Iran in order to spy for its intelligence services. The group was sent by Iran to Syria for training and had plans to act against Azerbaijan’s national interests, the DTX announced in a statement. Banned books and video materials “promoting radical religious extremist views” were recovered from members of the group, it said.
Tensions on the Rise
The arrests came as anti-government protests continue to grip Iran despite a bloody crackdown by the country’s security forces, and amid a deterioration of relations with Baku after Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia two years ago. Armed with high-tech drones supplied by Israel and Turkey, Azerbaijani forces reclaimed control of large swaths of territory previously held by Armenian forces since the early 1990s.
In a November 8 speech marking Azerbaijan’s Victory Day, President Ilham Aliyev harshly criticized Iran’s friendly relationship with Armenia, calling it “betrayal.” Aliyev also said his country would not be cowed by Iran’s military maneuvers on its borders. Last month, Iran’s armed forces carried out large-scale military exercises near the Azerbaijani border.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the Azerbaijani ambassador to Tehran “in the wake of anti-Iran propaganda and a smear campaign against the Islamic Republic by Azerbaijan’s officials and media.”
President Aliyev in May 2022 said Iran was hosting terrorists who were acting against Azerbaijan. In 2018, he said, then-President Hassan Rouhani was asked to extradite 20 people who had allegedly been involved in terrorist acts in Azerbaijan. “Unfortunately none of them have been extradited,” the Azerbaijani leader added.
The statement comes as anti-government protests continue to grip Iran despite a violent crackdown by the Islamic Republic’s security forces.
Azerbaijan, which has a majority Shiite Muslim population like Iran, has seen its relations with Tehran deteriorate after its 44-day war with neighboring Armenia two years ago.
Armed with high-tech Israeli and Turkish drones, Azerbaijani forces reclaimed control of large swaths of its territory occupied by Armenia since the early 1990s before Russia brokered a cease-fire in November 2020.
Iran often criticizes Baku’s relationship with Israel and has accused Azerbaijan of hosting the country’s forces near its border. Last week, Iran said it arrested 10 people accused of spying for Israel in a northwestern province that borders Azerbaijan.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps last month carried out large-scale military drills in the area, warning against any changes to international borders in the region. Tehran also opened a consular office in the town of Kapan, capital of Armenia’s southern region of Syunik close to the Iranian border.
On Tuesday, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan visited Tehran where he met President Ebrahim Raisi. Both countries agreed to develop a new trade corridor, double a gas-export agreement and extend their gas-for-electricity swap deal.