Azerbaijani authorities have reportedly arrested 32 Shia men as tensions with neighbouring Iran continue to mount.
According to identical articles published across multiple pro-government media outlets on Monday, the men had planned to overthrow the government and create a religious state in Azerbaijan
The arrests came as tensions continued to flare between Azerbaijan and Iran. Periods of increased tension have frequently preceded crackdown on Shia religious figures in the country.
According to the articles, which showed photos of all the men who were allegedly arrested, the men had carried out acts of sabotage ‘under the veil of religion’.
‘The detainees […] made open calls aimed at forcibly changing the existing constitutional structure of the Republic of Azerbaijan.’
The articles also accused the men of working on ‘the orders of foreign special services’, in a thinly-veiled reference to Iran.
‘Investigations established that they organised the sale of narcotics sent purposefully from the Islamic Republic of Iran and obtained a large amount of money. They spent their funds on promoting religious radicalism and financing other disruptive activities in Azerbaijan.’
The authorities have made no official comment on the reported arrests.
The reported arrests came soon after Azerbaijan accused Iran of violating its airspace. In a joint statement on Saturday, Azerbaijan’s defence and foreign ministries said an Iranian military aircraft flew along the two countries’ shared border, crossing into Azerbaijan several times.
The statement said Iran did not notify the Azerbaijani authorities of the approach of a military aircraft, which they said violated accepted international practices.
They added that the incident ‘serves to further strain relations between the two countries’.
Azerbaijan subsequently summoned the Iranian ambassador over the incident.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Naser Kanani denied that their aircraft had crossed into Azerbaijani airspace, calling the decision to summon their ambassador a ‘wrong move’.
‘We have relations with Azerbaijan in the field of defence, even the embassy is working actively, our military attache is working there’, Kanani said. ‘They could have applied to the Iranian embassy and our military attache over the issue. There would have been an exchange of ideas and the misunderstanding could have been resolved.’
The incident came soon after Israeli Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel met with President Aliyev in Baku.
Addressing the 10th Global Baku Forum on Sunday, Gamliel reportedly accused Iran of being the main cause of instability in the region.
According to Voice of America, she said that Iran was not only the enemy of Israel, but the entire world.
Commenting on the issue on Twitter, Shujaat Ahmadzada, an independent researcher focusing on conflict transformation and foreign and security policies in the South Caucasus, said that a full-scale war between the two countries was unlikely, but that smaller clashes were possible.
He said that a ‘symmetrical conflict’ with Iran would be ‘tantamount to an assassination’ for Azerbaijan, as ‘the balance of forces is clearly in favour of Iran’.
Ahmadzada added that the conflict had a strong geopolitical element, with Azerbaijan using it to gain favour with countries critical of Iran in the West.