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'Like Casablanca in World War II': As Iran tensions grow, Azerbaijan becomes den of spies

Joern Haufe / dapd via AP, file

The $350 million Flame Towers are due to be officially opened in the center of Baku, Azerbaijan, later this spring. A secular dictatorship with a long border with Iran, Azerbaijan is one of the few remaining countries than can act as a reliable listening post for America and Israel.

A Soviet-legacy oil nation is emerging as a hotbed of global espionage as tension escalates between Israel and Iran.

Azerbaijan, which links Russia to the Middle East, has strategic importance as a bridgehead for the West in its war of diplomacy with Tehran.


A secular dictatorship with a long border with Iran, it is one of the few remaining countries than can act as a reliable listening post for America and Israel, turning its capital, Baku, into a hotbed of intelligence activity.

“Like Casablanca in World War II, Baku is now also a center of monitoring Iranian mischief,” Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, part of the Heritage Foundation, told msnbc.com. “This is understandable taking into account visa-free regime of travel between the two countries and aggressive Iranian intelligence tactics.”

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Recent events have lifted the lid on some of the international maneuvering in Baku. In March, Azeri security services arrested 22 people they say were trained by Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against the US and Israeli embassies.

In January, two accused of plotting to kill teachers at a Jewish school were also held.

'The Israelis are more subtle'
Most experts agree there are many Mossad agents in Azerbaijan working for Israel.

“The Iranians act in the open, they want everyone to know that they are here,” Dr. Arastun Orujl, director of the east-West Research Center in Baku told Britain's Times newspaper. “The Israelis are more subtle, like the Americans. But in the end everyone knows they are here, too.”

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So why does Azerbaijan matter? Not only does its geography make it an ideal place for the U.S. and its allies to face down Tehran, but its political history entangles it in the current tensions with Israel.

Millions living in northern Iran are ethnic Azeris, theoretically binding the two nations. But Azerbaijan has allied itself increasingly with Israel and the West as it uses its oil wealth to leverage its global standing.

“It was one of the first countries to back America after 9/11,” Gerald Frost, director of the Paris-based Caspian Information Centre told msnbc.com. “It is as politically helpful to the West as its position close to the Middle East will allow. America needs to pay it close attention.”

While the country has made concessions to the West, it remains a dynastic dictatorship under the rule of Ilham Aliyev, who inherited power from father Heydar Aliyev, a former Soviet leader who reinvented himself as a nationalist during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ilham took over in a 2003 election described by Human Rights Watch as “fraudulent” and which it said was “followed by protests that turned violent, plunging Azerbaijan into a human rights crisis from which it has not recovered”.

David W Cerny / Reuters

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev answers questions during a news conference in Prague, Czech Republic, on April 5.

Israel last year established a factory in Azerbaijan making parts for its military drones, and has supplied the country with $1.6 billion worth of military equipment.

The BBC reported Russia President Vladimir Putin "surprised Western leaders" in 2007 by offering to let America use its radar base in Azerbaijan to defend Europe against any missile attack from Iran.

Cohen says Iran has been trying undermine Azerbaijan's secular position in the hopes of turning it from a dictatorship into a theocracy, echoing the transition of countries such as Libya and Egypt that now appear destined to be ruled by conservative Islamists.

Mark Perry, in a Foreign Policy article titled "Israel’s Secret Staging Ground", claimed Obama administration officials now believe that the security cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel is actually "heightening the risks of an Israeli strike on Iran".

Azerbaijan has denied it would allow the U.S. or Israel  to launch airstrikes, although Frost noted that it could provide associated support since it already allows the U.S. military into its airspace to reach Afghanistan and to evacuate injured troops.

While ties with Israel deepen, the future relationship with the United States is less clear because Washington does not currently have an ambassador in Baku. The last holder of the post, Matthew Bryza, left last year after his appointment was not confirmed by Congress, a decision Frost believes is likely to have been influenced by America's powerful Armenian lobby.

Cultural boom
Meanwhile, its strategic importance is being echoed in a cultural boom. Baku is enjoying a Dubai-style explosion of luxury hotels and designer fashion stores. "It is all very glitzy, very much reflecting the way Azeris want to be seen as an establish European-style country rather than a backwater," said Ben Illis, co-author of a new Time Out guide to Baku, which is due to be published next month.

It has launched a major tourism advertising campaign, and its ambitious bid to host the 2020 Olympic games found its way onto the IOC shortlist.

This spring is expected to see the unveiling of the $350 million Flame Towers – three glass-sided skyscrapers up to 620ft in height inspired by the country’s ancient association with fire. Human Rights Watch says “thousands of residents” have been forcibly evicted to make way for some of these projects.

However, billing itself as tourism destination may be a challenge for a country that still has a very poor human rights record and still is often confused with Kazakhstan, home of comic creation Borat.

An unlikely litmus test of its political ambitions will come next month when it hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, a live music competition beamed across Europe that is a byword for kitsch (it was once won by a transsexual representing Israel). Baku's bitter enemy, neighboring Armenia, pulled out of the contest in disgust when an Azeri duo won last year.

David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters, file

Eurovision Song Contest 2011 winners Eldar Gasimov (2nd left) and Nigar Jamal (2nd right), who are known as Ell-Nikki, are greeted by fans in Baku. Their victory means Baku will host this year's competition.

"This will perhaps be a good indication of how far the regime is prepared to go to further its relationship with the west," said James Nixey, of British think tank Chatham House.

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