The Azerbaijani authorities have arrested 19 Azerbaijani citizens who they said were members of an Iranian-backed militant group in the country.
On Monday, Azerbaijan’s State Security Service said they had exposed and neutralised an illegal armed group created by and under the control of the Iranian special services.
The Security Service said the group was given false identity documents with which they travelled to Tehran through third countries, after which they were flown to Syria on military aircrafts.
‘They were involved in military exercises on the territory of Syria, where they were taught to use different firearms and combat tactics; each person who participated in the exercises was given various amounts of money’, they wrote.
In addition to the 19 people arrested, the Azerbaijani security services said they had placed four others — Tohid Ibrahimbeyli, Rovshan Asadov, Orkhan Mammadov, and Elshad Hajiyev — on an international wanted list. They said the four were currently hiding in Iran.
The State Security Service said the armed group had recruited Azerbaijanis with prior convictions who considered themselves to be members of the religious opposition group, the Muslim Unity Movement.
The Muslim Unity Movement denied any connection with those arrested.
‘We are against the use of the name of the Movement and refute the idea that those persons are members of our movement’, the group told RFE/RL.
The arrests come at a time of heightened tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran.
On 17 October, Iran held military exercises along the border with Azerbaijan.
On Wednesday, Azerbaijan's special forces also started military exercises, led by Lieutenant General Hikmat Mirzayev, near the country’s southern border with Iran.
On Thursday, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov accompanied the commander of the Special Command Group of the Turkish Armed Forces in Azerbaijan to inspected the combat readiness of the military units in the south.
Commenting on the tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani MP Agil Abbas said that it was ‘a pity that some of our citizens are being deceived under the guise of religion’, and suggested that Iran’s only significance to Azerbaijan was providing the country with the aftafa (sanitary jugs traditionally used for cleaning after defecation), prayer beads, and drugs.
Tensions between the two countries have risen and subsided several times in recent years. Last year, speaking to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency about military exercises then being held by Iran on Azerbaijan’s border, President Ilham Aliyev asked ‘why now and on our border?’
'It is not me, but Azerbaijani society that asks these questions. There is also a question that why during the occupation in that region [when it was under the control of Nagorno-Karabakh] was there no training?’.
The rising tension between Iran and Azerbaijan comes as Armenia and Iran have moved to deepen their ties.
On Tuesday, Armenia and Iran signed agreements in several areas, including to double Iranian gas supplies to Armenia. Late in October, Iranian sources also claimed that Armenia was interested in purchasing military drones from Iran, though there was no official confirmation of this.
Iran has also been vocal in its opposition to Azerbaijani demands for a ‘Zangezur corridor’ — a proposed corridor that would connect mainland Azerbaijan with its Nakhchivan exclave through Armenia’s Syunik region.
Additional reporting by Ani Avetisyan.