An Iranian spy network was discovered operating in Azerbaijan, as tensions continue to rise between the two countries, the Azerbaijani State Security Service announced on Monday morning.
Asgarov Zahir Fakhraddin, a ship captain with the Caspian Shipping Company, was charged with treason for working with the Iranian special service in exchange for financial compensation.
According to the state security service, Fakhraddin collected intelligence on companies and representative offices of foreign countries operating in Azerbaijan, the times and locations of exercises conducted by the Azerbaijani Navy in the Caspian Sea and the cargo transported to oil rigs.
Another Azerbaijani named Rasulov Elnur Akif was also accused of conducting espionage operations for the Iranian special service, along with a relative named Rasulov Arif Amrah, in exchange for payments. The two sent photos and videos of oil and gas infrastructure, areas where drones and tanks are kept, anti-aircraft missile complexes and radar devices to Iranian agents through WhatsApp messages, according to the Azerbaijani agency.
Another Azerbaijani named Aghazade Bakhtiyar Rafiq was also accused of collecting information for Iran about representative offices of foreign countries in Azerbaijan, about the socio-political processes in the country and about military units.
Two other Azerbaijanis named Jafarzadeh Mirhafiz Mirisag and Mammadov Orkhan Kamran were accused on espionage charges as well. Mirisag was arrested in 2018, while Kamran is hiding in Iran.
Azerbaijan claims it found illegal armed group working under Iranian control
The announcement by the Azerbaijani State Security Service comes just two weeks after the security service said it had found an illegal armed group operating in the country for Iran's intelligence services.
The security service claimed that the group was formed through indoctrination with "radical extremist religious ideas." The group received military training in Damascus and many of its members are in Iran. One member of the group was arrested while attempting a terrorist attack in an unnamed third country, according to the announcement.
Additionally, on Sunday, the Azerbaijani news agency Report published a video alleging that Iranian soldiers entered Azerbaijani territory during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Report claimed that the Iranian forces entered the area to allow Armenian forces to regroup. The report has not been confirmed by Azerbaijani officials.
Tensions have risen between Azerbaijan and Iran in recent months
Tensions have risen between Azerbaijan and Iran in recent months in light of a number of issues, including efforts by Azerbaijan to create a corridor through Armenia to an exclave belonging to Azerbaijan, claims that Israeli intelligence is operating against Iran from Azerbaijan and op-eds by Azerbaijani newspapers encouraging the West Azerbaijan province of Iran to secede and join Azerbaijan.
Last week the Azerbaijani ambassador to Iran was summoned by Iranian Foreign Ministry for what it called "anti-Iran propaganda" and a "smear campaign against the Islamic Republic" published by Azerbaijani media.
Additionally, the Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan was summoned by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry regarding what it called "propaganda against Azerbaijan" and a "smear campaign," as well as "the threatening rhetoric of the high-ranking political and military officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Comments recently made by Aliyev lamenting that Azerbaijanis living outside of the country are not learning "in their native language" were reported by many news agencies as referring to ethnic Azerbaijanis living in northern Iran.
"We will continue our efforts so that our compatriots, who were separated from the state of Azerbaijan due to bitter fate, preserve our language, traditions, and culture, remain loyal to the ideas of Azerbaijanism, and never cut ties with their historical homeland," said Aliyev.
The Iranian MP for Tabriz in the West Azerbaijan Province expressed outrage at Aliyev's comments, stating "pay attention to how ignorant this president is about history. Azerbaijan separated from Iran and it is not as you say."
"Do not create a problem in our neighborhood with this rhetoric," warned Mohammad Reza Mirtaj Al-Din, the Tabriz representative. Al-Din then addressed Aliyev in Turkish, stating "If someone wants to join, Nakhchivan (an exclave of Azerbaijan located between Armenia and Iran) should join Iran."
In response to Aliyev's comments, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani warned Azerbaijan that "no one should interpret Iran's patience as weakness."
The spokesperson claimed that "hands from outside the region" were trying to "destroy Iran's relations with some of its neighbors."
Iran has also expressed concerns regarding Azerbaijani efforts to create a corridor called the Zangezur corridor through Armenia to the Nakhchivan exclave in recent months, as such a corridor would disrupt transit between Armenia and Iran.
Late last month, the Iranian military launched large-scale exercises along its border with Azerbaijan called "Mighty Iran."
Shortly after the exercises were announced, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told IRNA that the exercises were linked to concerns surrounding the Zangezur corridor efforts.
“Iran will not permit the blockage of its connection route with Armenia, and in order to secure that objective the Islamic Republic of Iran also launched a war game in that region,” said Amir-Abdollahian.
Azerbaijani media encourages ethnic Azerbaijanis to secede from Iran
In September, multiple editorials in Azerbaijani media called on ethnic Azerbaijanis in northern Iran to try separating from Iran, with Iranian officials warning against foreign efforts to disrupt relations between the two countries.
The articles cited a Turkish report by the Turkish Yeni Safak news site, linked to the Turkish government, which claimed that a former Iranian diplomat named Ebulfezl Zuhtevend made "scandalous statements" about Turkey and Azerbaijan in audio recordings.
Last year, tensions spiked between Azerbaijan and Iran after Azerbaijan began targeting Iranian trucks with fines and arrests, and Iran moved military forces to the border and warned against Israeli influence near its borders.
Ahmed Ali Goudarzi, commander of Iran's Border Guard, claimed at the time that Israeli forces are present in "sensitive areas" in neighboring countries and conducting intelligence and espionage work, advising Muslim countries "not to allow this," according to Iranian state broadcaster IRIB.
The commander additionally claimed that Israel incited neighboring countries to take action concerning their borders or impose large tolls on heavy vehicles, an apparent reference to fees imposed on Iranian truck drivers by Azerbaijan.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also claimed that Israel had a presence along the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, saying "the Zionist regime has started provocative actions in our region through the territory of Azerbaijan. We consider some of the harsh statements made by the Azerbaijani authorities these days to be unconstructive."
Azerbaijan's State Border Service (SBS) rejected the claims, saying that Azerbaijan "does not need the support of foreign forces."