Iran said that it had arrested “Israeli spies” in areas of east Azerbaijan province this week. It said that its security services in the province had identified “several spies” of different national origins. Security services “stated that the defendants were engaged in fraud, forgery of documents, preparation and purchase and sale of illegal bank checks” and other offenses.
“The director-general of East Azerbaijan Intelligence stated that the members of this fraud gang identified the poor and addicted people and after adapting their appearance with the cooperation of other gang members in the banking system, prepared a batch of bank checks for each of them.” It was unclear what the fraud had to do with the alleged “Israeli spies” Iran says it found. A relatively long article at Iran’s Tasnim News went into great detail about the use of fraudulent checks and marriage loans and using fake checks. An illegal bank was even discovered. This was also linked to fighting “currency smuggling.” Smuggling of gold and alcohol was said to be involved.
The director-general of East Azerbaijan Intelligence also announced the arrest of a number of members of foreign spy organizations in the province last year and said: "There is no Takfiri in our province and therefore we have not been arrested in this regard." The term “takfiri” generally refers to jihadists. Once again, it was unclear how this is linked to the headlines in Iran media about the “Israeli” connection.
In 2018, a Kuwaiti newspaper alleged that “an informed source” had said “Israeli intelligence services had used the territory of Azerbaijan to smuggle half a ton of seized secret files regarding the Iranian nuclear program from Tehran to Israel. The source did not comment on whether the route for smuggling the documents into Azerbaijan was over land or sea. But it underlined that Azerbaijan’s authorities were not aware of the alleged transfer of the files via Azerbaijani territory, from where they were airlifted to Tel Aviv.” In December 2020, after the killing of Iran nuclear chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, articles at the New York Times postulated that Iran was vulnerable via its Azerbaijan border.
East Azerbaijan is one of thirty other provinces of Iran. There is also West Azerbaijan and Ardabil province neighboring parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia. During the recent conflict in Azerbaijan there were concerns in Iran that Azeris in Iran would become too enthusiastic about nationalism across the border in Azerbaijan. Iran has millions of Azeris who are a powerful minority. The claims of “spies” in Iran’s provinces in the north may be seen as an excuse to crack down on these regions. Iran has said it is in a state of readiness and has increased security in these areas in the last year.