Azerbaijan Says Iran Stepping Up Espionage

BAKU (Reuters)–Azerbaijan’s Security Ministry on Thursday accused Iran of stepping up espionage activity and said the Islamic republic was trying to weaken the former Soviet republic.

"I sent a letter to the Iranian Embassy expressing concern about the daily information we receive about the activities of their special services in Azerbaijan–which have an openly aggressive character," said Araz Gurbanov–the head of the Security Ministry’s press service.

Relations between the two oil-producing countries are already prickly and Azerbaijan has previously accused Iran of spying and trying to spread Islamic fundamentalist propaganda in the secular country of some eight million people.

It is a sensitive issue as some 20 million Azeris live in northern Iran–far more than in Azerbaijan itself. The two countries have also been at loggerheads over boundaries in the oil-rich Caspian Sea.

The Iranian Embassy in Baku denied there was any basis to the accusations of spying.

"We categorically deny these groundless accusations–which are based on traditional stereotypes distributed with the aim of distracting public opinion," the embassy’s second secretary Mehdi Sobhani told Reuters.

"We call on Azeri officials to restrain themselves and hope that such emotional outbursts will not negatively affect relations between the two countries," he said.

In the past Azerbaijan has frequently complained of Iranian spying–and several Iranians were imprisoned on espionage charges in 1992.

A few years later Azerbaijan deported Iranian embassy officials after they discovered a flat with high-powered radio transmission equipment in Baku–Gurbanov said.

He said the level of activity had increased recently.

"We have many facts and films proving that Iranian special services are trying to organize an Islamic revolution and provoke religious conflict in Azerbaijan," Gurbanov said.

Western experts in Baku said Iran had always been active here and Azeri officials could be focusing on the issue now for political reasons–including a perception that Azeri President Haydar Aliyev’s health is declining after his heart bypass operation at the end of April.

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