Will Iran turn Azerbaijan into another Iraq?

Huda al-Husseini
Huda al-Husseini
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Azerbaijan’s government and many intellectual Iraqis feel deeply worried by what they view as Iran’s manipulation of Shiite Muslims.

Security forces in Azerbaijan recently submitted a report to the government saying that Iran “increased its capabilities” in some areas in the country, and they now think that many people are under Iran’s influence.

The report raised the government’s fears. In 2013, Azerbaijan has eased an unofficial restriction that prevented religious figures affiliated with Iran from preaching in public places. The aim of this “tactical” openness towards the Shiites aimed to stop Azeris from joining ISIS and fighting in Syria and Iraq.

It seems this policy had unintentional consequences and led to Iran’s increased control over Shiite practices in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani Turan Information Agency reported that according to official data, 22 out of 150 Shiite schools in the country are under Iran’s complete control.

Azerbaijan’s criticism of ties between Iran and Armenia is nothing new but it seems it has reached a serious level.

Huda al-Husseini

According to a Eurasianet report, in any secular and moderate Azeris were disturbed by the increase of Shiite practices. During Ashura ceremonies in September, children participated in rituals which include self-flagellation. MP Zahid Oruj is quoted by Eurasianet as saying: “When I saw children who do not fully understand everything attend Ashura ceremonies and little girls wearing hijab, I thought they will become Kamikaze in the future to be sent to Syria.”

Meanwhile, Iraq shares Azeris’ fears. Iraqi author Raghd Abdel Rida al-Jaberi said: “Iraqis were the striking power in the region. This is why Iran filled their lives with grief and put them through a funeral all year round. They’d wrap up commemorating Husayn and then observe his Arbaeen (the 40th day after his death). Then they commemorate Al-Zahraa, Al-Abbas, Zainab, Al-Kathem, Shaabanya, Al-Sajjad and Al-Moussawi. They do this all year round beginning with Muharram under the excuse of Ashura’s griefs.”

“While the Iraqis spent their time going from Najaf to Karbala and to Samarra, Iran built a strong army to manufacture weapons, innovate, create and develop to produce nuclear weapons,” Jaberi added.

“Iran through its wit made Shiite clerics in Iraq turn the Iraqis’ lives into a shameful reality. They even convinced Shiite Iraqis that washing and rubbing the feet of Iranians who are heading to visit Husayn’s tomb brings them closer to heaven no matter what they do afterwards. The Iranians destroyed the Iraqi army which confronted them for eight years.

They established an alternative army which consisted of two parts: one that protects Husayn’s visitors and another that carries food to those arriving from Iran to visit Husayn’s tomb and perform other rituals invented by their ayatollahs,” she added.

Out of fear that Azerbaijan becomes like Iraq, particularly after the scene of children during Ashura, the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs of Azerbaijan proposed in October a legislation that prohibits allowing children to participate in Ashura ceremonies and similar religious rituals.

Azerbaijan has not yet voted on the legislation but Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized this proposal when he received Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in Tehran in November. He told him: “We must provide Shiites in Azerbaijan with this great opportunity to mourn because it strengthens the identity of the Azeri state.”

Azerbaijan remains cautious of Iran. Ties between the two countries have witnessed some tensions ever since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 as Azerbaijan fears Iranian religious influence. Meanwhile, Tehran is worried of Azerbaijan’s possible influence on the Azeri ethnicity in North Iran. This is in addition to the fact that each country has strong ties with the other’s worst enemy: Azerbaijan has ties with Israel and Iran has ties with Armenia.

When Hassan Rouhani became president in 2013, Iran had to re-evaluate its relations with Azerbaijan. Official contacts increased between them, and they signed more than 20 cooperation agreements.

A source told me: “One of these projects would never have been approved before 2013 as Azerbaijan decided to finance a plan to build a 100-meters railway that extends from Azerbaijani’s borders to the city of Rasht. It’s part of the transportation corridor between the north and the south. Baku’s intention was to obstruct the plan to develop railways between Iran and Armenia.”

Baku has been wondering: Why does Tehran confirm its solid ties with the fait accompli authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh? Baku fears this will add legitimacy to Karabakh in Iran and help it gain sympathizers.

Huda al-Husseini

Baku did not confront Tehran about influencing Ashura’s ceremonies but Deputy Chairman of the Azerbaijani State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations Gunduz Ismayilov noted that some Azeri powers seek to bring politicians to Ashura ceremonies.

In December, a website affiliated with the government published an article accusing Iran of attempting to recruit Azeri pilgrims who visit Karbala. The article added that 30,000 Azeris visited Karbala this year. The number marked a 33 percent increase compared with last year.

The article also said that Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shiite Azeri militias affiliated with it recruited Azeris to gather intel and launch anti-government propaganda that’s mainly focused on the area of Nardaran, the center of extremist Shiites in Azerbaijan.

In 2015, security forces carried out a series of raids in Nardaran and arrested religious activists who were accused of conspiring to topple the regime. The Azeri government thinks those arrested were under Iran’s influence. After these raids, this influence weakened (the same scenario is now happening in Nigeria). Iran criticized Nardaran’s raids and viewed them as “a persecution against the Shiites and a violation of their rights.”

It seems Baku decided to clearly voice its worry of Iran. President Aliyev’s participation in the Jenadriyah festival as a guest of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz may be part of this policy. A report published by the Strategic Studies’ Center, a think-tank affiliated with the Azeri government, spoke about Baku’s fears of Iran and its ties with Armenia.

The report looked like a governmental statement and not an analytical piece. It was published in the Azeri language and not in Russian or English, like the case is with the rest of the center’s reports. Observers interpreted this as a message directed to the Iranian government via its embassy in Baku.

The “statement” criticized the increased contacts between Tehran and the authorities of the Nagorno-Karabakh Region which Baku views as an area that separated from Azerbaijan. It also mentioned the conference held on November 15 in Tehran on Nagorno-Karabakh. The report said: “The Iranian International Studies Association – which Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is one of its founders – is a platform to have Armenian scholars launch hostile propaganda against Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan’s criticism of ties between Iran and Armenia is nothing new but it seems it has reached a serious level. Baku has been wondering: Why does Tehran confirm its solid ties with the fait accompli authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh? Baku fears this will add legitimacy to Karabakh in Iran and help it gain sympathizers.

This threatens Baku’s interests and raises questions about Russia’s hidden role in these developments, particularly in Iran’s rapprochement with Armenia at Azerbaijan’s expense. Azerbaijan’s priority may be protecting Azerbaijan’s Shiites from religious habits and rituals which Iran wants to spread in their country.

This article was originally published on Asharq al-Awsat in Arabic.

Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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