Azerbaijan drawn into Iranian spy-vesus-spy intrigues

Two citizens of Azerbaijan have been arrested in connection with an alleged Iranian-backed plot to kill two Jewish educators and the Israeli ambassador in Baku, the capital, local media reported this week. Three men reportedly were charged with weapons smuggling as part of a plot to kill a teacher and a rabbi at the newly opened Chabad Or Avner Jewish school in Baku, as well as the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan, Michael Lotem. Two of those charged are reported to be in custody; one is still at large. It is alleged that Iranian intelligence agencies promised to pay the three men $150,000 to carry out the murders. The National Security Ministry said the men were connected to an Iranian citizen who had links with Iran’s intelligence services. Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau has issued a travel warning for Azerbaijan. The US embassy also issued a warning saying “the possibility remains for actions against US or other high-profile foreign interests in Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan is home to more than 9,000 Jews and has close ties with Israel and the US. It exports oil to Israel and imports weapons and military hardware. While selling natural gas to US allies Turkey and Georgia, it just struck a deal with Moscow to double the amount of gas it sells to the Russian energy monopoly Gazprom, to to 3 billion cubic meters per year. (JTA, Reuters, UPI, Jan. 25; RFE/RL, Jan. 20)

President Obama in his State of the Union address Jan. 24 made an oblique threat to use nuclear weapons against Iran—as he has before—saying he would take “no options off the table” to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. (Reuters, Jan. 25)

A new report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) meanwhile finds Iran is unlikely to move towards building a nuclear weapon in 2012 because it cannot yet produce enough weapon-grade uranium and is being deterred by sanctions and the prospect of an Israeli attack. “Iran is unlikely to decide to dash toward making nuclear weapons as long as its uranium enrichment capability remains as limited as it is today,” the report found. ISIS, founded by nuclear expert David Albright, was commissioned for the report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an independent center created by the US Congress in 1984 that receives federal government funding. “Iran is unlikely to break out in 2012, in great part because it is deterred from doing so,” says the Isis report, which has not yet been publicly released. (The Guardian, Jan. 26)

Three nuclear scientists have been killed in mysterious attacks in Iran over the past two years.

See our last posts on Iran, Azerbaijan and nuclear fear.