BAKU (Reuters) - An Iranian journalist is being held in custody on suspicion of drug possession in Azerbaijan, prompting a warning from Iran’s embassy that the arrest could damage already tense relations between the neighboring nations.
Anar Bayramli, a reporter for Iran’s Sahar TV and the Fars news agency, was detained last week and Azeri authorities ordered him held in custody Monday pending further investigations and a possible trial, saying they found him in possession of .387 grams of heroin.
“This incident may lead to a worsening of bilateral relations,” Azeri news agency ANS quoted an Iranian embassy representative in Baku as saying. The representative said Bayramli is “a devout, respectable person.”
Azerbaijan is an oil-rich Muslim Caspian Sea state whose secular government has cordial ties with the United States.
Tension between Iran and Azerbaijan has increased after killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, which Tehran has blamed on Israel and the United States, and attacks or alleged plots against Israelis in several countries including Azerbaijan.
Last month Azeri authorities arrested two men suspected of plotting to attack foreigners, including the Israeli ambassador in Baku and a rabbi.
Azeri authorities said the two suspects had been helped by an Iranian linked to Iran’s intelligence services, who supplied them guns and explosives to smuggle from Iran.
On February 12, Iran’s Foreign Ministry accused Azerbaijan of aiding Israeli intelligence in the assassination of a Iranian nuclear scientist blown up last month, according to Fars.
Shortly before Bayramli’s arrest, the speaker of Azerbaijan’s parliament suggested that Sahar TV was “preparing anti-Azerbaijan provocations.”
Fears of Iranian plotting against its smaller neighbor have been prominent for years in Azerbaijan, whose President Ilham Aliyev tolerates little dissent.
Azeri authorities have said they thwarted a plan by agents of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia to set off a car bomb near the Israeli embassy four years ago, and a plot targeting the U.S. and British embassies in 2007.
Editing by Steve Gutterman