Israel is using Azerbaijan, a former soviet republic bordering Iran, as a base to spy on the regime in Tehran, the London Times reported Saturday.
The newspaper cited testimony from an anonymous Mossad agent, referred
to only as Shimon.
“This is ground zero for intelligence work,” Shimon told The Times. “Our presence here is quiet, but substantial. We have increased our presence in the past year, and it gets us very close to Iran. This is a wonderfully porous country.”
According to Shimon the Azerbaijan-Iran border, just a few hours south of the capital Baku, is prime territory for the Israeli intelligence service to gather information on Tehran’s activities.
However, there are even more members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards operating in Azerbaijan than Israeli agents, but their methods are different than those used by Mossad.
“There is a great deal of information there from people who regularly and freely travel across the borders. It is unregulated — almost. Except for the Iranians who are watching us watch them,” said Shimon.
Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country with a Shiite majority, is home to more than 9,000 Jews and has friendly ties with Israel and the United States. The country is a major energy producer, and exports oil to Israel and imports weapons and military hardware in return from the Jewish state
Israel has also been able to capitalize on a decline in relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.
There are several possible reasons for the strained relations between the two neighbors. Baku has often complained of an institutionalized discrimination against ethnic Azeris by the Persian majority in the Islamic republic.
In a move likely to irk Tehran, a group of Azerbaijani lawmakers have recently proposed the country changes its name to Northern Azerbaijan, to emphasize the fact that the Azeri nation is split between an independent state, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and a province in northern Iran, known to many Azerbaijanis as Southern Azerbaijan.
Iran has also recently strengthened its ties with Azerbaijan’s regional rival, Armenia. Baku and Yerevan have been locked in conflict of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory since the early 1990s.
Sixteen years after a truce was signed, more than 20,000 Armenian and Azerbaijani continue troops stare at each other from trenches on either side of the cease-fire line.
However, not all Azerbaijanis have a positive view of improving ties with Israel.
In January authorities arrested two men suspected of plotting to attack targets including Israel’s ambassador and a local rabbi.
Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry said the men were connected to an Iranian citizen who had links with his country’s intelligence.
“Citizens of Azerbaijan - Rasim Aliyev and Ali Huseynov - were preparing an attack on public figures, who are foreign citizens,” the National Security Ministry said at the time in a statement.
The ministry said the Iranian citizen, identified as Balagardash Dadashev, had helped the two buy weapons Iran and smuggle them to Azerbaijan.
The announcement came after several state websites in Azerbaijan were rendered inaccessible for hours by hackers who posted images of the devil over photographs of the Azeri and Israeli presidents, alongside messages saying “Servants of Jews” and “Enemies of Islam.”
Despite the cooling of ties between Iran and Azerbaijan, Iranian companies continue to operate and have stakes in oil contracts in the Caspian Sea state, which exports around 1 million barrels of crude a day (bpd) westward through a pipeline operated by a consortium led by British Petroleum.
After the alleged assassination plot was revealed, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev said that Baku would continue to cooperate with Israel, particularly on homeland security issues.