An Azerbaijani court sentenced 22 Iranian-backed individuals for plotting terrorist acts against Israeli and American targets Tuesday.
All the defendants, who were charged with aiding Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, received sentences of between 10-15 years in jail at the Baku serious crimes court following the trial which was closed to the public.
The length jail terms were apparently in part due to further charges of treason and unlawful possession of weapons levelled at the individuals. Azerbaijani authorities claimed the Iranian Revolutionary Guards recruited Azerbaijani Niyazi Kerimov while he was in Iran 1999 and charged him to assemble a group of his fellow countrymen to act as spies. Subsequent targets for attack included US and Israeli embassies, as well as Western-linked groups and companies.
The convictions followed last week’s claims the oil-rich former Soviet state which neighbours Iran was considering aiding the Jewish State should it launch a pre-emptive strike on the Islamist state.
According to Reuters news service, two Azeri former military officers and two Russian intelligence sources confirmed that Israeli had been collaborating with Azerbaijan to see how its energy bases and intelligence would help the Jewish State should it employ military action to challenge Iran’s disputed nuclear weapons programme.
Whilst a spokesman for Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev dismissed the claims as idle “speculation”, parliamentary foreign affairs committee member Rasim Musabayov concluded that an Israeli attack on Iran would not succeed without access to a refuelling basis. "We have (bases) fully equipped with modern navigation, anti-aircraft defenses and personnel trained by Americans and if necessary they can be used without any preparations," he added.
Tensions have emerged between Azerbaijan and close neighbour Iran, in light of its increasing closeness to Israel, which Iran continues to threaten to annihilate and refuses to recognise as a State.
Azerbaijan has taken a hardline against Iranian terror suspects, as well as agreeing to buy weapons from Israel in recent months.
Tensions came to a head when Iran protested Azerbaijan’s decision to host the Eurovision Song Contest in its capital Baku in May as “anti-Islamic”.
Iran recalled its ambassador to Azerbaijan after its neighbour dismissed its criticisms of holding a “gay parade” in a country that, though officially secular, claims a Shi’ite Muslim majority population.
Last month, a Baku court convicted three Azerbaijani citizens of plotting to kill teachers at a Jewish school in Azerbaijan, in a planned attack it claimed was also commissioned by Iran.
Other reported targets for the trio included foreign diplomats and business as well as other Jewish community centres.
At a meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council in Brussels in July, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted Israel had “real and hard evidence that the one who stands behind these attacks is Hezbollah and the Iranians”.
Israel has repeatedly accused Lebanese militant group Hezbollah of serving as Iran’s proxy and has called on the EU to add it on its list of terrorist organisations. The group is already outlawed in the US and the Netherlands.