Azerbaijan arrests six radical Islamists over ‘coup plot’ blamed on Iran

Baku says men were trained by Iranian secret service and hoped to overthrow the government, set up a Sharia state

Illustrative: A police officer guards an area in front of the Iranian Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.  (AP Photo/Aziz Karimov)
Illustrative: A police officer guards an area in front of the Iranian Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Aziz Karimov)

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Azerbaijan on Thursday arrested six men it said were linked to Iranian secret services and were plotting a coup in the Caspian nation, in the latest friction between Baku and Tehran.

Relations between the neighbors have long been strained, with Azerbaijan being a close ally of Iran’s historical rival Turkey and holding close ties with arch-foe Israel.

The arrests came after months of diplomatic tensions.

Baku said the six Azerbaijani nationals were “recruited by Iranian secret services to destabilize the situation in the country.”

It announced the arrests in a joint statement by the interior ministry, state security service and prosecutor-general’s office.

It said the group was plotting to “set up a ‘resistance squad’ aimed at establishing a Sharia state in Azerbaijan through armed unrest and violent overthrow of Azerbaijan’s constitutional order.”

It accused them of being “engaged in a pro-Iranian propaganda of religious radicalism, fulfilling orders from abroad to undermine Azerbaijan’s tradition of tolerance.”

According to Azerbaijan, they promoted “radical Islam” using money from drug profits.

In January, Azerbaijan suspended the operation of its embassy in Iran, days after a gunman stormed the mission, killing one guard and wounding two others.

Baku has claimed that Tehran’s secret services were behind the attack.

Last year, the oil-rich country arrested five of its nationals for spying for Iran and 17 more men who Baku claimed belonged to an “illegal armed group set up by Iran.”

Azerbaijan has criticized Iran over allegedly backing Armenia in Baku’s decades-long conflict with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.

Iran — which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking ethnic Azerbaijanis — has long accused Azerbaijan of fomenting separatist sentiment inside its territory.

Tehran also fears that Azerbaijani territory could be used for a possible attack against Iran by Israel, a major supplier of arms to Baku.

The neighbors share a border that runs near the Caspian Sea.

Last month Azerbaijan and Israel reaffirmed their strategic ties as Baku opened its first embassy in Israel.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (R) at a press conference with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov in Jerusalem on March 29, 2023. (Miri Shimonovich/ Foreign Ministry)

“Azerbaijan is a strategic partner of Israel,” said Foreign Minister Eli Cohen as he hosted his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov, noting the close cooperation on “issues of regional security.”

“Israel and Azerbaijan share the same perception of the Iranian threats,” said Cohen. “The Iranian ayatollah regime threatens both our regions, finances terrorism and destabilizes the entire Middle East.”

Israel is one of Azerbaijan’s leading arms suppliers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel provided 69 percent of Baku’s major arms imports from 2016-2020, accounting for 17% of Jerusalem’s arms exports over that period.

The Shiite-majority country has, in turn, supplied Israel with significant amounts of oil in addition to reported cooperation against Iran.

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