Iranian media on Sunday Dec. 9 accused he US and Israel of stepping up their intelligence surveillance of the Astara Rayon region of southeastern Azerbaijan along the Caspian maritime frontier with Iran. The Americans were claimed to have extended their radar stations’ coverage, while Israel was said to have increased the number of Orbiter ultra-light drones spying on the region, as well as using the 10 Hermes-450 UAVs, made in Israel and recently sold to Azerbaijan. According to Iranian sources, the Hermes drones’ spying operations over the Iranian border are guided by Israeli military satellites.
In Israel, there is little doubt that Tehran was laying the groundwork for an attempt to down an Israeli-Azerbaijani drone with the same traps used for two American drones – the ScanEagle, which was downed over the Persian Gulf earlier this month, and the MQ 1 Predator which came under fire from two Iranian Air Force SU-25 fighters as it approached the sky over the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
Referring to the ScanEagle, Revolutionary Guards Navy commander Adm. Ali Fadavi said Tuesday, Dec. 4, that one of his units had captured a US drone flying over his forces in the Persian Gulf.
Azerbaijan restricts border crossings to and from Iran
Catching Israeli drones is a challenge of a different order since none fly near Iranian borders.
However, Tehran appears to be planning to net one of the drones Azerbaijan bought from Israel and, despite the purchaser’s military markings, present it as the capture of an Israeli spy drone controlled by the Israeli Air Force and military intelligence, MI.
This would be a feather in Tehran’s cap on a par with its success on Oct. 6 in keeping an Iranian drone, launched by Hizballah from Lebanon, on the loose for two hours in Israeli airspace before it was downed.
However, this plan has just encountered a serious setback.
On Dec. 11, the Azerbaijani parliament cancelled a memorandum which simplified border crossings by Azerbaijani and Iranian citizens living in border areas. The memorandum, which affected citizens in an area 45 kilometers from the Azerbaijani border with Iran, was up for renewal in early December.
It was not renewed, even though it provided the Baku government’s only free access to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. This enclave of Azerbaijan, covering an area of 5.500 square kilometers, is landlocked by Armenia to the east and north, Iran to the south and west, and Turkey to the northwest.
Baku authorities catch Iranian agents spying out drone bases
Its half a million Azeris are denied passage to Azerbaijan through Turkey and Armenia because of their support for Nagorno-Karabakh, another landlocked South Caucasian region involved in bitter war against Azerbaijan.
So why did the Baku government have the memorandum cancelled and its own access to Nakhchivan hampered?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terror sources have the reason.
Last week, Azerbaijan barred entry to the Iranian culture attaché serving at the embassy in Baku on his return from home leave in Tehran. No valid reason was offered for this step except that his visa had expired.
But according to our sources, the Baku authorities had just rounded up six Iranian agents who had infiltrated the country and were looking for the air bases where the drones purchased from Israel were held. The spies were found in possession of cash, fake passports, automatic pistols, advanced electronic equipment for tracking aircraft and electronic warfare devices for jamming flying vehicles and downing them.
The Azerbaijani investigators were able to establish that the Iranian culture attaché was an undercover agent charged with running the captured ring.
It was therefore decided in Baku to slow down the flow of Iranian agents into the country by cancelling the memorandum easing border crossings.