Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

Growing Iranian influence in Azerbaijan: What should be done

IRAN’S IDEOLOGICAL INCURSIONS

Since regaining independence, Azerbaijan has been a political battleground for its big neighbours, namely Iran, Russia and Turkey. The fact that none of these countries is a true democracy means that the major objective for each of them is to advance their national strategic goals at the expense of Azerbaijani national security interests. Iran is a unique country in this regard and its tactics differ from those of the other two countries in every respect.

Iran’s relations with Baku over the last 27 years have been tense and far from stable. Iran has a strong relationship with Armenia and uses it to contain Azerbaijan and stop Baku from actively supporting the Iranian Azerbaijanis. The local Armenian community in Iran has more rights than the ethnic Azerbaijani community including education in their mother tongue. Iran’s Persian language website azariha.org publishes articles against Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijani political movements on a daily basis. Iran’s Azerbaijani language channel Sahar TV spreads Tehran’s propaganda in the Republic of Azerbaijan, particularly in the border regions, despite several measures to reduce its scope.

Iran and Azerbaijan shared a mutual history for thousands of years until the Russian occupation of Azerbaijan in the 19th century following the Gulistan peace treaty. Thus, some circles within the Iranian establishment consider the Republic of Azerbaijan as a northern province of the Islamic Republic. Azerbaijan and Iran share 618 kilometres of land border as well as a maritime border in the Caspian Sea.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran actively participated in spreading its Khomeini model among the Shia population of Azerbaijan. Mostly it was done through soft power, by opening religious centres, NGO’s, cultural centres and the allocation of bursaries to young Azerbaijani students of religion to study in the ideological city of the Islamic Republic, Qom. According to various estimates, hundreds of thousands of young Azerbaijanis studied religion in Qom, since the country regained its independence in 1991. Azerbaijani students can be seen in various Iranian cities such as Qom, Ardabil and the capital Tehran. There are strong allegations that while studying there these students not only are ideologically brainwashed, but are also recruited by Iranian intelligence and receive military training under IRGC or Basij supervision. The Baku authorities are concerned about Iranian manipulation of Azerbaijan’s Shia population. Iran’s ideological influence is rising and it can be seen in the growing number of participants in Shia Ashura ceremonies.

In addition, Shias are becoming more politicised through political movements such as the Muslim Movement founded by jailed preacher Taleh Bagirzada. Iranian-educated preachers use extreme, ideological political language which terrifies the Aliyev regime. According to Wikileaks cables, Azerbaijan’s autocratic president Ilham Aliyev complained to American and other Western diplomats about the Iranian threat and Tehran’s intentions to use Azerbaijani Shias in its long-term objectives. According to the Azerbaijani authorities, Azerbaijani security services have arrested many local groups suspected of intelligence gathering and terror plots against the US, Israeli and Western embassies in Baku in the past few years. In 2012, 22 Azerbaijani nationals linked to the IRGC were arrested over involvement in a terror plot against the Israeli embassy in Baku.

Following a botched attempt to assassinate the mayor of Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja, last year, the authorities arrested several suspects. They accused Tohid Ibrahimbayli, a citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan now living in Iran, of sending the mayor’s attacker, Yunis Safarov, for military training in Syria. They also claimed that Ibrahimbayli created a group called Huseyniyyun, made up of Azerbaijani male students studying in Qom and Mashad, and sent them to fight against ISIS alongside the Assad regime. While they were receiving military training in Syria, Tohid Ibrahimbayli informed his group that they were also training to participate in a military conflict against the state of Azerbaijan. Eventually one of those men abandoned the training and retuned to his madrasa in Khoy, Iran. He was pressurised by the madrasa’s leadership and insulted by Ibrahimbayli and as a result he stopped his education and returned to Azerbaijan.

The conservative Shia village of Nardaran, just north-east of Baku, is well known as pro-Iranian and a base for Iranian emissaries. In late 2015, seven people, including two police officers, were killed in raids against supposed religious extremists in Nardaran. The locals were ready to resist the security services before the 2015 government crackdown on radicals there too. Those arrested following the Nardaran raids consider Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei as their “red line” in terms of their relations with the secular opposition, and called the Ayatollah their “leader” in leaked audio footage on YouTube. Basically, Iran’s major objective is to establish its hegemony through a proxy in Azerbaijan, a method that has been used successfully in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and other regional countries. The Iranian regime is looking to create a new Hezbollah in Azerbaijan and in this regard Iranian-educated radical Shias are primary targets. It seems that the Iranian regime prioritised spreading its political influence in the southern border regions of Azerbaijan based upon the strong religious sentiments of the local people. Iranian Azerbaijani political activists claim that they discovered a military training camp near the Iranian Azerbaijani city Ardabil for students from the Republic of Azerbaijan. 

HOW TO CONTAIN SPREAD OF TEHRAN’S INFLUENCE

SUPPORT FOR IRAN’S AZERBAIJANI POLITICAL MOVEMENTS

Azerbaijan needs to evaluate its options regarding stopping the intensified ideological incursions from its southern neighbour. First and foremost, Azerbaijanis are the largest minority in Iran with more than 20 million, and as other Iranian minorities their minority rights are not ensured in the Islamic Republic. Iran’s Azerbaijanis are denied schools and education in the Azerbaijani language and have been subjected to racist insults by the pro-government media many times which resulted in mass demonstrations in 2006 and 2015. Following Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s recent visit Azerbaijanis protested at Tehran’s close ties with Armenia on social media and in at football matches. It is also known that Ilham Aliyev’s government banned several Iranian Azerbaijani political activists from entering the Republic of Azerbaijan based on an agreement with Tehran. Supporting Iranian Azerbaijani exiled political movements, politicians and activists would be strong leverage to curb both Iran’s ideological incursions as well as its duplicitous policy towards Baku on the Mountainous Karabakh conflict. One option worth considering is to allow Iran’s Azerbaijani political movements to open a TV channel in Persian.

CREATING RELIGIOUS BALANCE: OPENING SUNNI MOSQUES

After a terrorist attack against a Sunni mosque in Baku in 2008, Ilham Aliyev’s government shut down several Sunni mosques in the city. These mosques were attended by several hundred young people every Friday and were useful in terms of fighting radicalisation ideologically. Moreover, the growing number of Sunni worshippers was important in balancing out the Iranian ideological influence in Azerbaijan. Therefore, Iran had used its religious tools to actively spread a narrative against the Sunni mosques and their worshippers. For instance, the Tabriz cleric Amili condemned the growing Sunni trend in Azerbaijan by branding them “Wahhabi” in his Friday sermons. Spreading fake accusations against the Sunni religious communities contributed to sectarian tensions at least on the ideological level. Those Sunni mosques preached obedience to the rules of the country and condemned radical takfiri groups ideologically. Nevertheless, the Sunni mosques were a productive countermeasure in terms of containing Iran’s influence and there was speculation that former President Heydar Aliyev had used them to create religious deterrence. However, after the closure of the mosques and the state’s official embrace of Shiism, Iranian religious influence has grown dramatically and become both religious and political. It would be rational to reopen those mosques and this would serve two goals: balancing Iran’s influence and fighting against extremist groups ideologically.

DEMOCRATIC REFORMS & ECONOMIC PROSPERITY: WHY DEMOCRATISATION MATTERS

Azerbaijan is ruled by the Aliyev dynasty and basic freedoms are not respected. Over its 26 years of existence, the primary job of the regime has been to curb and degrade the secular pro-Western democratic opposition. The autocratic system has created many crises in the country, including economic, political, social and cultural. The state level anti-Western propaganda, accusations that the opposition is the fifth column of external states, the violation of human rights and worsening economy have contributed to the rise of radical Iranian-backed groups in the country. The average monthly salary is around 200 AZN and ordinary Azerbaijanis are suffering under the Aliyevs’ mismanagement. Corruption at the state level, stealing money from the budget and investing in offshore zones have all made the economy sink. In a country with a high rate of unemployment foreign intelligence services can recruit as many people as they wish. So, this should be addressed by adopting democracy and holding free elections. Without allowing the opposition to participate in government Azerbaijan cannot sustain its statehood as a whole.

STRENGTHENING TIES WITH ISRAEL

The Azerbaijani authorities should also deepen ties with the US, Western countries and most importantly with Israel. Israeli-Azerbaijani ties are beneficial in many respects such as for the military, economy and politics. They can be used as diplomatic leverage to put pressure on Tehran over its provocative actions and relations with Armenia. Israel can increase Azerbaijan’s defensive capabilities – the purchase of 5 billion dollars worth of Israeli-made weapons is a good sign of it. Intelligence sharing between the two countries can be productive in preventing subversive actions against Baku by a proxy group within the country. Azerbaijan can also play an important role in getting Israeli support for Iranian Azerbaijani political movements. The US and its Western allies should also provide the necessary support for Azerbaijani political movements.

Ultimately, Azerbaijan has to adopt a well calculated long term strategy to defend its sovereignty from any threat. The current authorities are the people who should be interested in considering these factors, as their priority is to ensure their own survival.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East, including for the website www.astna.biz. I have a Masters' degree in International Politics & Human Rights from City, University of London.
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