Last month, I pondered whether the tension between Azerbaijan and Iran that had lasted through much of 2011 was finally ending. Ali Hasanov’s visit to Tehran, and the mutual protestations of respect and non-interference in each other’s affairs, seemed to suggest a truce in the war of words between the two.
But now this: the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry has announced it foiled a plot to assassinate foreign citizens (possibly diplomats) in Baku, supported and coordinated by the Iranian intelligence services.
According to the authorities (News.az has the most extensive account), the three suspects were led by Balaqardash Dadashov, who “had contacts with Iranian intelligence agencies”. Dadashov used his flat in Ardabil in northwestern Iran to enlist two other Azerbaijani citizens to carry out the attacks. They conducted extensive surveillance of the homes, workplaces and movements of the (unidentified) foreign citizens.
Allegedly the Iranian intelligence services were extremely involved. Not only did they supply a sniper rifle, silenced pistols, and plastic explosives, they intervened to change the location of the weapons cache which one of the conspirators had proposed.
The fact that the government in Baku has publicly pointed the finger at Tehran via the press could be highly significant, given the apparent interest in de-escalating the recent tensions. As always in these situations, the best question to ask is cui bono?
If the story is true, then it would be an extremely aggressive act by Iran. It would suggest that Azerbaijan is being considered as a battleground for the proxy war with Israel and the US: blow up our nuclear scientists, and we will assassinate your diplomats. This makes sense for the Revolutionary Guards, but not for the Iranian government, which needs as many allies as it can get and has little to gain by alienating Baku.
On the Azeri side, the fact the ‘Iranian connection’ was made public suggests that the National Security Ministry is not fully signed up to the détente with Iran. No doubt there are some angry calls from the president’s office to the ministry today asking why the news was announced to the press: unless, of course, the government wanted to publicly blame Iran.
On both sides, it seems likely that the security services are prepared to do their own thing, and aren’t reading from the same page as the executive. Or if they are, then it seems that neither Azerbaijan nor Iran is really into this whole ‘friendly relations’ thing. Looks like 2012 could be another rocky year.