Iranian-Azerbaijani relations, which were recovering from a recent blow (see EDM, April 23), have begun to worsen again. An apparent spy war has erupted between the two countries, leading to unprecedented statements from both sides. The latest deterioration in relations began when Azerbaijani poets Farid Huseynov and Shahriyar Hajizade went missing in Iran on May 2 of this year. The Iranian Center for Independent Writers and Poets, a group which encourages ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran to use their own language, had earlier invited Huseynov and Hajizade to Iran to attend the Maraga poetry festival. For several weeks following their disappearance, the Iranian side did not confirm whether or not the two Azerbaijani citizens were arrested. Only recently, the Iranian law enforcement bodies finally acknowledged the detention of Huseynov and Hajizade. Iranian Tabnak and Aran websites claimed that the Azerbaijani poets were accused of drug trafficking and spying for Israel. According to the reports, the poets allegedly smuggled narcotics from Russia to Europe. Furthermore, “They confessed that they were spying for Mossad. This is considered the gravest crime, and the poets could be sentenced to death. The documents on the charges brought against them were sent to Baku,” the Iranian media said (Azernews, July 4).
On July 4, Iranian Press TV showed videos of the interrogation of the Azerbaijani poets. Iranian public officials told Press TV that Hajizade and Huseynov came to Iran to advance separatism by organizing Iranian dissidents. The Iranian group that initially invited the two Azerbaijani citizens “confessed” that the poets were lured to Iran with a fake invitation (Zerkalo, July 5).
The poets’ detention compelled Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry to call on its country’s citizens to be cautious while travelling to Iran. Ministry spokesperson Elman Abdullayev told reporters that the incident involving the Azerbaijani poets was vivid proof that travelling to Iran might be unsafe. “Nobody can be immune [to the possibility that] he will be detained in that country [Iran], and absurd accusations will be put forward against him,” Abdullayev said. He noted that the Iranian side’s attitude toward the citizens of a neighboring country is confounding and unacceptable (Today.az, July 13). Only on July 18, as a result of efforts made by the Azerbaijani Consulate General in Tabriz and Embassy in Tehran, consent was reached for the Azerbaijani poets detained in Iran to meet with their family members (Trend, July 18).
Azerbaijan has tried to clarify the fate of its citizens with Iranian public officials. Iran’s Minister of Education Hamid-Reza Haji Babai, who visited Azerbaijan last week, stated that Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran Hossein Amir-Abdollahian would visit Baku in the near future to hold talks with Azerbaijani officials on the poets detained in Iran (Trend, July 13). Arrests of the Azerbaijani poets initiated a large campaign for the defense of their rights. Many governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations joined the campaign and even launched an online petition calling for the release of Huseynov and Hajizade.
Arrests of people accused of espionage frequently spoil relations between the two countries. In March of this year, the Ministry of National Security arrested a group of 22 citizens of Azerbaijan who were recruited by Iranian special services to implement acts of terrorism on Azerbaijani territory (Trend, March 14). But Azerbaijani law-enforcement agencies did not arrest any Iranian citizens on charges of terrorism or espionage. Neither has the Iranian side ever risked arresting Azerbaijani citizens until now. This is the first time that Azerbaijani citizens have become hostages to the worsening relations between the two countries. Arastan Orujlu, director of the East-West Research Center in Baku, said the two poets’ arrest looked like a direct consequence of the worsening bilateral relationship. He believes the still unconfirmed accusations made against them mirror the charges that Azerbaijan had brought in recent criminal cases against pro-Iranian groups in the country (IWPR, July 13).
In the midst of the spy scandal, the Central Bank of Azerbaijan has annulled the license for the locally operating Royal Bank to conduct banking operations. Although the Central Bank did not officially justify its action against Royal Bank, experts connect such a move with the local bank’s illegal baking activities. The Yeni Musavat newspaper claimed that Royal Bank came under surveillance from Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security for illegal money transfers (Yeni Musavat, July 13). Moreover, back in 2010, Wikileaks disclosed the correspondence of Ann Derse, a former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, in which she shared her suspicions of money laundering of Iranian funds by several Azerbaijani banks, including Royal Bank (Turan, July 13). The founder and major shareholder of Royal Bank (44 percent) is Ali Jam, a US citizen of Iranian origins. The timing for annulling the license coincided with the commencement of financial sanctions on Iran imposed by the US government.
Iran will likely continue to bargain with Azerbaijan over the case of the arrested poets, but it is hard to believe that Iran will risk jailing Azerbaijani citizens for the long term. Nevertheless, these arrests may frighten Azerbaijanis off from visiting Iran. Such an outcome may, in turn, intensify Iran’s international isolation and sever contacts between the neighboring countries’ peoples.