By Ebrahim Ramezani
August 11, 2020
In recent days a picture of the severed hand of General Ghasem Soleimani, the former commander of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force who was killed in January by an American armed drone outside Baghdad Airport, has surfaced on social media after being posted by channels associated with the Revolutionary Guards in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
“This is the hand of the one who rescued millions of innocent people from the yoke of the injustice and crimes of international terrorism, and who was then assassinated by the terrorist and terrorist-nurturing American government,” reads the caption. “It was a dastardly act of terror that angered God – and then God forbade hand-shaking all over the world!”
The Islamic Republic has tentacles in every country with a Shia Muslim population. Entities and activity linked to Iran can be found in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Azerbaijan Republic, Pakistan and even in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Global media and research centers have written extensively about the expansionist policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East. But little attention has been paid to the its ever-increasing interference in the Caucasus region, home to three former Soviet Republic states: Georgia, which has troubled relations with Russia and wants both to integrate into Europe and become a member of NATO, Christian Armenia, which is allied with Russia, and the secular Republic of Azerbaijan, which is allied with Turkey and home to the highest proportion of Shiites outside of Iran.
The “Nardaran Incident” and its Repercussions
On November 26, 2015, on the eve of a major Shia holiday, Azerbaijan’s security forces engaged in an operation in the region of Nardaran, 25 kilometers from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. The operation was against an armed group that officials – along with state-controlled media – portrayed as Islam-inspired terrorists who wanted to establish a religious government in the area. In the ensuing conflict seven people, including two members of the security forces, were killed and 16 members of the so-called Movement for Muslim Unity were arrested. These armed clashes became known as the Nardaran Incident.
A number of political figures and media in the republic of Azerbaijan accused the Islamic Republic of having had a hand in the Nardaran incident. Iran denied the claims and urged Azerbaijan to show restraint in dealing with radical Muslims in that country.
“The people of Nardaran are mostly devout people but we must acknowledge that there are individuals in Nardaran who are under the influence of the government of another country, in which they have studied and been trained, and are acting with the support of that country,” said Siyavuş Novruzov, chairman of the Azerbaijani parliament’s Religious Affairs Committee, in December 2015. “Many religious extremists have chosen that country as their base.”
Novruzov went onto discuss apparent efforts by the Islamic Republic of Iran to influence Shia Muslims in his country, highlighting the instrumental role of Mansour Haghighatpour: a former member of the IRGC and and representative of Ardebil, a northwestern province and part of Iran’s historic Azerbaijan region, in the Iranian parliament.
“While Haghighatpour was working at the embassy of the Islamic Republic in Azerbaijan he engaged in sabotage, passing information to Armenia, and a court case was lodged against him,” said Novruzov. “In that time he had formed his own group in Nardaran and today, he is defending the group that was arrested in Nardaran.”
The Republic of Azerbaijan has also accused Iran of interference in its domestic affairs. But the embassy of the Islamic Republic in Baku has rejected this and Iran’s state-controlled media talks instead about Israel’s interference in Azerbaijan’s domestic affairs.
Borhan Heshmati, a former representative of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (the IRIB) in Azerbaijan, has even accused the country of playing a role in the assassination of Masoud Ali-Mohammadi, a Iranian nuclear scientist, in 2010.
“The Israelis flew [Majid] Jamali Fashi [the man accused of assassinating Ali-Mohammadi, who was executed in 2012] to Israel without the stamp of Baku Airport in his passport and trained him to assassinate the martyr Ali-Mohammadi,” Heshmati asserted last year.
According to Ebrahim Ebrahimi, the former Iranian cultural attaché in Baku, speaking in 2015, Azerbaijan’s regime “has no tolerance for religious rituals and rites although it is a Muslim country.”
What is the duty of the Islamic Republic toward Shias in the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ebrahimi was asked? The ambassador from Azerbaijan must be summoned to rallies and marches in cities like Ardebil, Tabriz, and Tehran to speak and explain why the government of Azerbaijan has taken such action, answered Ebrahimi.
After the Nardaran incident, mourning ceremonies for the “martyrs” were held in a number of Iranian cities including Tabriz, Zanjan, Urmia, Hamedan and Bijar.
How Iran has Tried to Meddle in Azerbaijan’s Internal Affairs
In recent years entities associated with the Islamic Republic have been very active in the Republic of Azerbaijan. It is seen as a strategic location in which to promote both Shia Islam and the wider interests of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s arms-length activities in the country have included, but not been limited to:
- Providing Azerbaijani students with free education at Iran’s seminaries;
- Sending Azerbaijani students to universities in Iran to study religion;
- Dispatching Iranian clergymen to Azerbaijan to promote the Shia religion;
- Funding various pro-Islamic Republic organizations;
- Funding and organizing ceremonies the mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the second Shia Imam;
- Establishing websites in the Turkic dialect of Azerbaijan to promote the Shia faith;
- Historic projects run by Imam Khomeini Charitable Foundation in various Azerbaijani cities.
There are more than 50 active pro-Islamic Republic websites in Azeri Turkish. As well as news sites registered in Iran, there are others registered at domains in the Republic of Azerbaijan that public low-quality news and propaganda items.
“We don’t believe these websites have much influence on the people of Azerbaijan,” an advisor to an Azerbaijani official told IranWire. “This is not to say that we have no control over their activities. On the contrary, the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan is aware of this matter and conducts adequate surveillance of these sites.”
The Imam Khomeini Charitable Foundation was actively present in Azerbaijan until 2011. According to its official website, the foundation formerly had 55 offices in the country, including a headquarters in Baku, four major branches in the cities of Baku, Lankaran, Goychay and Ganja, 16 training workshops, five cultural centers, five medical centers and five other offices.
The activities of all these branches were suspended in 2011 and in 2014 the Foundation was ordered to cease all activities in the Republic of Azerbaijan. In 2014, Mohsen Pak-Aeen, Iran’s former ambassador to Azerbaijan, claimed the foundation had spent close to $43 million on charitable projects in the country.
Citing an unnamed official source, the Azerbaijani news and analysis website Media Forum claimed the Imam Khomeini Charitable Foundation was booted out of the country because it supported secessionist movements.
How Azerbaijan is Countering Religious Expansionism
Since 2015, the government of Azerbaijan has acted to considerably reduce the number of Iranian clergymen in the country. It no longer allows missionaries from Iran to preach among Azerbaijani Shiites with the same ease and freedom as they used to. The state’s first move after the Nardaran Incident was to ban Azerbaijani Imams who had been educated at Iranian seminaries from operating in the country.
In 2018, the government founded the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology so as to train Azerbaijani religious students at home. This and the Baku University of Theology, founded in 2014 with Turkish support, has gone some way to replace Iranian-educated clergymen with moderates in Azerbaijan.
Observers believe that there are two main reasons why Iran has not been able to influence the Shia population in Azerbaijan as much as it has in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Pakistan. Firstly, although the people of Azerbaijan see themselves as Muslims and a majority of them are Shia Muslims, religion is not taught in schools and nor is there an appetite in government to teach religion. The only time schoolchildren are taught anything about religion is in the middle school, when their social studies textbook offers a brief examination of different global belief systems.
Naturally, however, a minority of devout Shia Muslims in the country do see the Islamic Republic as a form of utopia. “We don’t ask for much from the government, except to respect our religion and to refrain from arresting and imprisoning the Shia clergy,” a pro-Islamic Republic young man in Azerbaijan told IranWire. “Iran is the only place where Shias can live in peace. Every other place where there are Shias they are treated unjustly.”
Would he be willing to live in a religious city in Iran instead? “Whenever I want, I go to Mashhad and Qom, and I have friends there. I would have loved to live in Mashhad and Qom with my family but I cannot take all my family and friends along with me.”
Unlike the Shia clergy in Iraq, Bahrain and Pakistan, Shia clergymen in Azerbaijan – barring a few outliers – have little record of holding extremist political views or taking extremist action.
Nesib Nesibli, a former Azerbaijani ambassador to Tehran who is now a professor of history at the University of Ankara in Turkey, told IranWire: “The only positive legacy that the former Soviet Union left in Azerbaijan was a secular government.
“The people of Azerbaijan accept that they are Muslims but the majority of them do not follow Islamic edicts. This is the most important factor in the Islamic Republic’s failure to influence Azerbaijan. The Islamic Republic has tried harder to infiltrate Azerbaijan than in any other Shia country, but it has not succeeded.”
The Ongoing Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh
The second reason Iran’s influence in Azerbaijan has been so fragile is the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has soured public opinion of the Islamic Republic in Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked, mountainous region that has been the subject of an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan, in which it lies, and its ethnic Armenian majority, backed by neighboring Armenia. In 1988, toward the end of Soviet rule, Azerbaijani troops and Armenian secessionists began a bloody war which left the de facto independent state in the hands of ethnic Armenians, before a truce was signed in 1994. Negotiations have so far failed to produce a permanent peace agreement and both sides have had soldiers killed in sporadic breaches of the ceasefire since.
A few years after the Iran-Iraq war, which ran from 1980 to 1988, the Islamic Republic – which considered itself the victor – offered to endow Azerbaijan with its military experience to “liberate” Nagorno-Karabakh. The first group of Iranian military advisors were accordingly dispatched to Azerbaijan in the 1990s. But later Heydar Aliyev, president of the Republic of Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003, later accused this group of espionage and interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs, and expelled them from the country. One of these military advisors was General Mansour Haghighatpour, who later served as a member of parliament for Ardebil as well as the governor of Ardebil province. He is subject to a separate espionage case in Azerbaijan.
The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is well aware of the feelings of millions of Azerbaijani people about Nagorno-Karabakh and often refers to this region as “Islamic land”. Every now and then, the Friday Imams of various cities in Iranian Azerbaijan mention Nagorno-Karabakh in their sermons. The most active of these is Hasan Ameli, whose sermons are often addressed more to the people of the Republic of Azerbaijan than to his flock in Ardebil city.
Some circles in the Islamic Republic talk about close relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan Republic and Israel and Azerbaijan’s refusal to cooperate with Iran. They claim that if the government of Azerbaijan fostered closer ties with the Islamic Republic, Iran could resolve this issue for them.
“All the world is aware of the lies told by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Republic of Azerbaijan knows well that Iran is less powerful that it claims,” Nesib Nesibli tells IranWire. “A country that within a month kills its own people by shooting down a passenger plane, that hits its own naval vessel, then calls both either a human or technological error, is not in reality a powerful country. A government that kills its own citizens cannot claim to be the leader of Muslims and Shia Muslims. The government of Azerbaijan and the people of Azerbaijan are well aware of this too.”