Spy vs spy: secret wars waged in new spooks’ playground: Azerbaijan

The Times (London), UK
February 11, 2012 Saturday

Spy vs spy: the secret wars waged in new spooks’ playground: Azerbaijan

This small country is used to being a listening post, but its position
at the centre of activity in the present climate is a big cause for
concern.

by Sheera Frenkel reports from Baku

In a warm café in central Baku, Shimon sips his Persian tea and
grimaces at the unusually large snowdrifts outside. Near by 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 of Azerbaijan 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.”

A few hours south of Baku is the border with Iran, which Shimon calls
“the grey zone” for intelligence operatives. “There is a great deal of
information there from people who regularly and freely travel across
the borders. It is unregulated – almost. Except for the Iranians who
are watching us watch them,” he said.

Dr Orujlu said that thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard members
were operating in Azerbaijan. He estimated that there were fewer
agents from Israel’s Mossad agency, but that they operated in a “more
effective” way. “The Iranians act in the open, they want everyone to
know that they are here. The Israelis are more subtle, like the
Americans. But in the end everyone knows they are here too.”

In his previous work in counter-intelligence, Dr Orujlu tried to keep
tabs on who was in the country and what they were working on. “But
there are so many of them and we are a small country.They play above
us,” he said.

Zazdusht Aleizada, who met The Times in the newspaper offices he runs,
said the spy networks were an “open secret” in Baku. “We all know that
they are here. The only secret is how much money they paid the
Azerbaijani Government in bribes.”

It was a sentiment echoed by half a dozen officials. Many point to the
Gabala mission defence complex in the north of the country, on the
Russian-Azerbaijani border, as a hub for intelligence work. It is here
that Russia, and increasingly the US and Europe, use advanced
surveillance equipment and radio networks to monitor Iran. It was
originally built during the Soviet era, but Dr Orujlu said that its
equipment was now “lent out” to other agencies.

The US also built two massive installations in Azerbaijan: one in the
south to monitor Iran, and another in the north to monitor Russia,
officials in Baku said.

“There is a natural relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran.
Azerbaijan is a gateway to Iran,” said Kamil Salimov, a law professor
at Baku University with former ties to the Government.

About 16 per cent of Iranians are native Azeris, many of whom live in
the northern part of Iran and enjoy visa-free travel between the two
countries.

But tensions between the two countries have recently been on the rise,
with the state-run Azerbaijani news service increasingly reporting the
mistreatment of Azeris in Iran.

“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 Isreal 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.

“Azebaijan is increasingly speaking up against Iran,” Mr Aleizada
said. He pointed to statements made by Azerbaijan’s ruling Yeni Party
this month that suggested changing the name of the country to “North
Azerbaijan”, arguing that “South Azerbaijan” was under the control of
Iran.

Tehran was worried by the statements, wondering how large a role
Azerbaijan could play if the West chose to launch a military strike on
Iran, Mr Aleizada said. “They sense that there is a growing distance
between their country and ours. They have responded with threats,
saying that they will start a war against their neighbouring states,
including us, if they felt threatened by Israel. This is dangerous for
us because we cannot stand against them alone and we are not sure how
much the West will help us.”

Few believe that Azerbaijani soil would be used to host large standing
armies or to launch an attack, but the nation’s role in intelligence
gathering could be invaluable.

Dr Orujlu said: “If an airstrike is launched against Iran, or Iran
should fire missiles from its own soil, the early detection system in
Gabala would be the first to know it. And so would Israel and their
friends in the West.”

From: Baghdasarian

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