BAKU - Iran has recalled its ambassador to Azerbaijan, the Iranian embassy said Tuesday, amid a row between the two neighbours that has escalated as Baku prepares to host the Eurovision song contest. "Ambassador Mohammad Bagher Bahrami left for Tehran on May 21 in connection with the insulting of religious saints in Azerbaijan. He was recalled for consultations," charge d'affaires Ahmed Nemati said in a statement. The move came after several dozen Azerbaijani protesters rallied outside the Iranian embassy last week, some holding posters mocking Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's late revolutionary leader.
Tehran reacted by summoning Baku's ambassador, Javanshir Akhundov to the foreign ministry to be notified of Islamic republic's "protest over insulting religious sanctities," the official IRNA news agency reported.
The report also confirmed the recalling of Tehran's ambassador in Baku.
Azerbaijani lawmakers strongly criticised Iran during a debate on the ambassador's recall in the ex-Soviet state's parliament.
"Iran is using Eurovision as a pretext to increase pressure on Azerbaijan. It is wrong and endangers peace and stability in the region," said governing party lawmaker Mubariz Gurbanly.
A senior Azerbaijani official on Monday accused Iran of spreading slander about the country as Baku got ready to host the prestigious pop competition that has been slammed as immoral by some Iranian clerics.
Presidential administration official Ali Hasanov alleged Iran was spreading false rumours that a gay pride march would be held in Baku during Eurovision week, saying Tehran wanted Azerbaijan to become an Islamic state and sever its friendly ties with the US and Israel.
In a separate development on Tuesday, Azerbaijani media reported that 11 alleged Islamist radicals had been arrested in the city of Sumgayit for plotting a campaign against Eurovision.
Police said they had found CDs containing anti-Eurovision and pro-Islamic material which had been distributed to some homes in Baku and Sumgayit in recent days, according to local media reports.
Azerbaijan has been seeking to use Eurovision, which is watched by an estimated 125 million people worldwide, to boost the image of the oil-rich state, but the days leading up to the contest have been marred by the row with Iran and allegations of human rights abuses.
Tensions between the Islamic Republic and mainly Muslim but officially secular Azerbaijan have increased in recent months after Baku arrested a series of suspected attack plotters with alleged links to Iran.