Azerbaijan has announced the arrest of at least nine of its nationals accused of being linked to Iranian secret services and of plotting a coup and the assassination of prominent officials.
A joint statement issued by the Ministry of Interior, the State Security Service, and the Prosecutor General's Office on May 16 revealed that the suspects "were working for Iranian secret services."
They are accused of seeking to "disrupt stability" in the South Caucasus country by disseminating "religious propaganda."
The statement said that Ruhollah Akhundzadeh and his son Al-Morsel Akhundzadeh, in collaboration with the Iranian special services, plotted "to forcefully change the constitutional structure of the Republic of Azerbaijan and orchestrate armed rebellions with the objective to establish the "Karima" state, and to organize assassination attempts on prominent personalities and senior officials," the statement reads.
The two men formed clandestine groups on WhatsApp, Telegram and other instant messaging systems, and provided members of the group with a list of government officials and prominent figures, along with their residential and workplace addresses, in order to organize their assassinations.
Azerbaijani media reported that Akhundzadeh intended to send members of the group to Iran, under the guise of religious education, to receive military training.
Last month, Azerbaijani news agencies reported the alleged arrest of the leaders of a group called "Hosseiniun" in the Iranian city of Qom.
Tohid Ebrahim Beigli and Orkhan Mamedov are accused by Azerbaijani authorities of planning to establish the "Karima" state in Azerbaijan.
In late 2015, Ebrahim Beigli formed the "Hosseiniun Brigade" (Hosseinchiler) with 14 Azerbaijani students who were studying in Qom and Mashhad.
The aim of the group was to fight against the ISIS extremist group in Syria and prepare for an armed conflict in Azerbaijan.
In late 2015, Ebrahim Beigli, along with 14 students from the Republic of Azerbaijan who were studying in Qom and Mashhad, formed the "Hosseiniun Brigade," with the stated objective of fighting against the ISIS extremist group in Syria and prepare for an armed conflict in Azerbaijan.
Who is Ruhollah Akhundzadeh?
Ruhollah Akhundzadeh, the deputy of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2011. Following his release, he traveled to Iran in 2020 where he has been actively involved in organizing religious extremist groups closely associated with the Islamic Republic.
The State Security Service of Azerbaijan issued a statement in November last year saying it had conducted an operation against an illegal armed group which operated under the guidance of the Iranian intelligence services. Akhundzadeh was apprehended during the operation.
In the past year alone, Akhundzadeh, with the support of the intelligence agencies of the Islamic Republic, has reportedly made two attempts to establish an armed group aimed at carrying out acts of sabotage and terrorism in Azerbaijan.
According to the newspaper Mosavat, the intelligence agencies of the Islamic Republic are secretly promoting religious extremist ideas in Azerbaijan to encourage citizens to participate in military exercises abroad and finance their activities.
Lasting Tensions Between the Two Neighbors
Baku and Tehran have often had strained relations, with Azerbaijan accusing the Islamic Republic of trying to destabilize the country. Azerbaijan also criticizes Iran for allegedly backing Armenia in the long-standing conflict over Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
According to the Baku Post, Iranian intelligence agencies attempted to use Azerbaijani citizens to act against Azerbaijan's interests and in favor of Armenia during the 44-day war between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.
In turn, Tehran has long accused Baku of fueling separatist sentiments among its sizeable ethnic Azeri minority. The Islamic Republic also fears that Azerbaijani territory could be used for a possible attack against Iran by Israel.
The Azerbaijani authorities strongly reacted to military maneuvers conducted by the Islamic Republic along the Azerbaijan border, calling them provocative and unacceptable.
Tensions between the two neighbors escalated over the past months following a "terrorist attack" on the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran, the arrest of individuals affiliated with Iranian intelligence services on charges of espionage, the assassination attempt on a member of an Azerbaijani lawmaker, the expulsion of diplomats from both nations, and the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel.
"Iran Seeks to Regain Influence" in the South Caucasus
"Over the past 30 years, Iran has consistently sought to interfere in Azerbaijan's internal affairs," university professor and political analyst Nazem Jafar Soy tells IranWire.
"This has included sending mullahs to Azerbaijan, influencing the youth of the country through religious teachings in Iran, engaging in espionage, and exploiting the religious sentiments of the Azerbaijani people," he added.
But Jafar Soy says that Iran's "once relatively prominent role in the Caucasus region has diminished" since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, with Turkey taking its place.
"As a result, Iran seeks to regain influence in the region by using threats and creating espionage groups to portray the area as unsafe and reclaim its position in the Caucasus," he adds.