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Did Iran plot to kill Israelis in Azerbaijan?

BEIRUT - Piece by piece, the tools for an alleged Iranian-directed murder team were smuggled into Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. A sniper rifle with silencer. Pistols. Sixteen pieces of plastic explosives and detonators.

Finally came a dossier with photos, names and exacting details — down to workplace drawings — for Israeli targets in the capital of Azerbaijan.

Each step, according to authorities in Baku, was overseen by Iran's intelligence services for what could have been a stunning attack weeks before the suspected shadow war between Jerusalem and Tehran flared in Azerbaijan's neighbor Georgia and the megacities New Delhi and Bangkok.

The shadow war is picking up as concerns are growing over Iran's alleged weapons experiments. Iran denies charges by the West that it seeks atomic weapons, insisting its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes only, such as power generation.

The allegedly unraveled Baku plot in January, recounted through interviews and police records, has been largely overshadowed by this month's arrests and attacks that suggest Iranian payback after the slayings of at least five Iranian scientists in the past two years — all with some links to Tehran's nuclear program.

But the Baku claims offer a wider portrait of Iran's alleged clandestine operations, and how they appear tailored to different locales.

"The moves against Israel taken in other countries and thwarted in Baku are undoubtedly interconnected," said Arastun Orujlu, the head of East-West, an independent Baku-based think tank. "Iran tries to provoke Israel. Iran needs an external factor to mobilize and unite the society, but it realizes that it will lose a big war. That is why Iran is trying to provoke Israel to engage in smaller-scale confrontation."

In Bangkok, the three Iranian suspects in custody took advantage of Thailand's foreigner-friendly culture to party with bar girls while allegedly organizing a bomb cache whose targets, police say, included the Israeli Embassy. In New Delhi, the wife of an Israeli diplomat and three others were wounded by attackers using magnetic bombs — the same tactic used to kill a senior nuclear official in Tehran last month in an attack that Iran claims was masterminded by Israel. The same day as the New Delhi blast, a similar "sticky bomb" was found on the car of a driver for the Israeli Embassy in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

The Baku allegations bring a different scenario: local mercenaries suspected of being recruited by a well-known gangster with alleged ties to Iranian secret services.

"Each alleged plot has its own signature," said Theodore Karasik, a security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, who was part of a fact-finding trip to Baku after the January arrests in Baku. "They all seem to have a bit of an amateur quality about them, however, as if Iran is trying various tactics to see what works."

But the shifting tactics remain difficult to interpret, say security experts.

Some speculate they indicate a level of sophistication and preplanning to adapt plans that take local conditions and opportunities into account. An opposing view also is frequently cited: They represent a scattershot approach that shows panic and disarray as sanctions — and suspected covert attacks inside Iran — rattle Tehran's leadership.

Iran denies any links to the attacks outside its borders, but accuses Israel of directing the slayings of the Iranian scientists as well as other clandestine acts such as a computer virus that targeted uranium enrichment equipment.

"There is no way to interpret its belligerent and violent behavior, which all but defies all operational and diplomatic logic, as anything but a sign that the decision-makers in Tehran are acting from their gut and not their head," wrote Yoav Limor, a prominent defense correspondent for Israel's national TV station.

The Baku case bridges both elements: A suggestion of some methodical planning, but also a risky reliance on the local underworld in a city that with a history of tensions between Iran and Israel.

The former Soviet republic — flush with Caspian oil and friendly to the West — sits on Iran's western shoulder with deep connections into the Islamic Republic through Iran's ethnic Azeri community, one of the nation's largest whose members include Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Baku's outward-looking policies also have been packaged into an international PR campaign as it bids for the 2020 Olympics.

In 2007, Azerbaijan convicted 15 people in connection with an alleged Iranian-linked spy network accused of passing intelligence on Western and Israeli activities. The following year, Azerbaijan officials said they foiled a plot to explode car bombs near the Israeli Embassy in retaliation for the killing in Syria of a top commander in Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group. Two Lebanese men were later convicted in Baku for the bombing attempt.

Now, as Iran's nuclear showdown with the West deepens, the Islamic Republic sees the Azeri frontier as a weak point. Earlier this month, Iran's foreign ministry accused Azerbaijan of allowing the Israeli spy agency Mossad to operate on its territory and providing a corridor for "terrorists" to kill members of Iran's scientific community.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Elman Abdullayev, dismissed the Iranian claims as "slanderous lies" designed to turn attention away from the alleged assassination plot uncovered last month.

Authorities in Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry allege the weapons and explosives were smuggled into the country bit by bit beginning in October. The cache included three pistols and a military-grade sniper rifle with a silencer.

The suspected ringleader was a local thug, Balagardash Dadashev, who had a record that included kidnapping and robbery. Azeri officials believe Dadashev, at some point, branched out to make connections with Iranian agents, possibly linked to the powerful Revolutionary Guard, the ultimate defender of Iran's ruling system.

From a safe haven in Iran, Dadashev then reached out to two Azeri underworld figures to carry out killings of Israeli citizens.

Police say he first approached his brother-in-law, Rasim Aliyev, who at first rejected the idea. Then, authorities say, he and his Baku neighbor returned with a demand for $200,000. Dadashev countered with $150,000 and gave Aliyev a $9,300 advance as well a plan of a Jewish school in Baku and photos of two Israeli teachers working there. Police say Dadashev said they could target either of the two at their choice.

Aliyev's neighbor, Ali Guseinov, used some of the money to buy a used car, according to investigators. He then requested a sniper rifle after seeing security cameras at the school, which caters to Azerbaijan's small Jewish community. Police say pistols, explosives and detonators also were part of the plot's arsenal.

The alleged plot collapsed with a series of raids and arrests announced Jan. 19. Dadashev was believed to be in Iran and out of the reach of Baku authorities. But in a purported confession shown on Azerbaijani state television, Aliyev said Dadashev had told him it was revenge for the alleged Israeli slayings in Iran. Some Israeli reports, which have not been officially confirmed, said the country's ambassador also was a target.

Israeli security officials refuse to give further details about their investigations or coordination with authorities in Baku. Last week, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted the alleged Azerbaijan plot as part of Israel's efforts to work with security forces around the world.

"In recent months, we have witnessed several attempts to attack Israeli citizens in several countries, including Azerbaijan, Thailand and others," he said. "In each instance, we succeeded in foiling the attacks in cooperation with local authorities."

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