Both strands could be traced back to the same place, the officials were told: Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran.
The threat, many details of which were never made public, appeared to recede after Azerbaijani authorities rounded up nearly two dozen people in waves of arrests early this year. Precisely who ordered the hits, and why, was never conclusively determined. But U.S. and Middle Eastern officials now see the attempts as part of a broader campaign by Iran-linked operatives to kill foreign diplomats in at least seven countries over a span of 13 months. The targets have included two Saudi officials, a half-dozen Israelis and — in the Azerbaijan case — several Americans, the officials say.
In recent weeks, investigators working in four countries have amassed new evidence tying the disparate assassination attempts to one another and linking all of them to either Iran-backed Hezbollah militants or operatives based inside Iran, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern security officials. An official report last month summarizing the evidence cited phone records, forensic tests, coordinated travel arrangements and even cellphone SIM cards purchased in Iran and used by several of the would-be assailants, said two officials who have seen the six-page document.
Strikingly, the officials noted, the attempts halted abruptly in early spring, at a time when Iran began to shift its tone after weeks of bellicose anti-Western rhetoric and threats to shut down vital shipping lanes. In March, Iranian officials formally accepted a proposal to resume negotiations with six world powers on proposals to curb its nuclear program.
“There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to calm things down ahead of the talks,” said a Western diplomat briefed on the assassination plots, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intelligence. “What happens if the talks fail — that’s anyone’s guess.”
Less clear is whether the attempts were ordered by government officials or perhaps carried out with the authorities’ tacit approval by intelligence operatives or a proxy group such as Hezbollah. Many U.S. officials and Middle East experts see the incidents as part of an ongoing shadow war, a multi-sided, covert struggle in which Iran also has been the victim of assassinations. Four scientists tied to Iran’s nuclear program have been killed by unknown assailants in the past three years, and the country’s nuclear sites have been hobbled by cyberattacks. Iran has accused the United States and Israel of killing its scientists, but it has repeatedly denied any role in plots to assassinate foreign diplomats abroad.