Interesting piece in today’s London Sunday Times which, if true, shows us a little about the murky world of intelligence. Feel safer now knowing how this works?
In a warm café in central Baku, Shimon sips his Persian tea and grimaces at the unusually large snowdrifts outside. Nearby is the building that houses the Israeli Embassy — and Shimon’s unofficial place of work. In all the years he has worked in Azerbaijan, he has only been to the building once.
Shimon is one of dozens of Israeli Mossad agents who work in Azerbaijan at any given time. His familiarity and comfort in the country are obvious as he speaks about various towns and cities that he has come to know.
“This is ground zero for intelligence work,” he said, having agreed to talk on condition of anonymity. “Our presence here is quiet, but substantial. We have increased our presence in the past year, and it gets us very close to Iran. This is a wonderfully porous country.”
Nestled between Iran and Russia, Azerbaijan has long been a listening post. But the recent tensions over Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions have brought the small country to the forefront and established it as a pivotal hub for the spy wars being conducted between Iran and the West.
According to Arastun Orujlu, a former Azeri counter-intelligence officer and director of the East-West Research Centre, the capital, Baku, is like Norway during the First World War. “Or like Casablanca was during the Second World War. Yes, exactly like this — it is at the centre of the spying.”
“There is anger over perceived Iranian arrogance, and the fact that Iran continues to support and grow ties with Armenia, with which Azerbaijan has a territorial dispute,” said Mehman Aliyev, director of the independent news agency Turan.
Israel has capitalised on such discontent and an open market in Azerbaijan, forging business and military links over the past two decades. Israel buys 30 per cent of its oil from Azerbaijan, and recently awarded a lucrative gas-drilling contract off the coast of southern Israel to an Azerbaijani company. Israel has also recently set up a factory outside Baku, which makes approximately one third of the parts for its drones. The unmanned aerial vehicles, which are used to gather intelligence, are also being sold to Azerbaijan amid speculation that a base is being constructed for a permanent mission over Iran.
“The Azerbaijani military force is already completed in sync with the Israeli and American systems,” Dr Orujlu said. “Largely because the Americans have been using Azerbaijan for medevacs from Afghanistan for years.” Shimon confirmed that the Israeli and Azerbaijani militaries were “well acquainted” with one another.
But for residents of Azerbaijan who maintain ties to Iran, the newfound closeness with Israel is a subject of distress.
A recent plot to attack the Israeli Embassy in Baku is being attributed to two young Azeris with ties to Iran. Their families said that their sons’ cases were being blown out of proportion to set an example.