Azerbaijan has arrested 22 people on suspicion of spying for Iran, charging them with treason and illegal possession of weapons, the BBC reports. The detainees are accused of having ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a powerful and feared branch of Iran’s military.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy march during a parade in Tehran in September. (STRINGER/IRAN/REUTERS)

In 2009, New York Times reported Michael Slackman reported that the Guards had become widely influential under Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, growing both in fortune and in sense of entitlement. Slackman wrote:

The corps has become a vast military-based conglomerate, with control of Iran’s missile batteries, oversight of its nuclear program and a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching into nearly every sector of the economy. It runs laser eye-surgery clinics, manufactures cars, builds roads and bridges, develops gas and oil fields and controls black-market smuggling, experts say...

All of its finances stay off the budget, free from any state oversight or need to provide an accounting to Parliament.

Ahmadinejad himself is a former member of the Revolutionary Guards, as are a dozen others in Iranian Parliament, according to the Times.

The 22 detainees in Azerbaijan are suspected of having received orders from the Revolutionary Guards to “commit terrorist acts against the US, Israeli and other Western states' embassies and the embassies' employees,” the Azerbaijani national security ministry said in a statement.

“Firearms, cartridges, explosives and espionage equipment were found during the arrest,”the statement said.

Last month, Iran was suspected of attacking Israeli targets in Thailand, India and Georgia. That same day, Azerbaijani TV reported that the government had foiled a plot to attack the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish center.

Azerbajiani oil and gas are being developed in the Caspian Sea for consumption in the West, making the region of increased strategic importance, according to the BBC.