Our Analytics 9 october — 12:19

Iran goes against Azerbaijan with 'soft power' ... through third countries (Our details)

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BY ILKIN SAFIYEV, AZERI DAILY AUTHOR

In recent days, Iran, which has staged large-scale military exercises on the border with Azerbaijan, which is clearly undertaken to warn and even intimidate Baku, has again become the topic of the international agenda.

However, from a military-political point of view, the manoeuvres called by Tehran the 'Conquerors of Khaybar' and directed, according to the Iranian authorities, 'against the presence of the Zionist regime in the territory of Azerbaijan,' did not particularly impress either Azerbaijan or the rest of the world. If only because the ground forces involved in them have weapons of the 1960-1970s. But the 'soft power,' which Iran has been using against Baku for many years, worries more than the concentration of troops on the border.

'Conquerors of Khaybar' did not particularly impress

The so-called 'soft power' is used by Tehran to spread the radical religious and political ideology on which the Islamic Republic is based in the countries of the region, primarily in Azerbaijan, and the states of the Middle East. One of the goals of Iran is the formation of regimes in the region that share its ideology, that is, accept the Shiite trend of Islam as the basis of the political system of the state. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the population of Azerbaijan is Shiite Muslims, in theory, should have opened up more opportunities for Tehran. However, in a country where the ideas of secularism and Turkism were firmly rooted, despite decades of persistent efforts, Iran did not have the desired results.

The organisation that Khamenei built

Iran's propaganda 'soft power' comes primarily from the so-called 'World Assembly of Ahl al-Bayt,' created in 1990 by the religious leader Khamenei and other influential representatives of the Iranian elite. Formally, it is a non-governmental organisation whose goal is to strengthen the unity of Muslims around the world. In fact, the 'assembly' is under the direct control of the Iranian special services and is actually one of their offshoots, designed to identify, train and support adherents of Shiism of the Iranian persuasion, that is, radically militant, around the world. Tehran spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to spread its idea of ​​political Islam through this 'Ahl al-Bayt.' Its cells have settled in dozens of countries around the world. It was planned to organise them in Baku, but the decisive measures of the Azerbaijani special services and law enforcement agencies prevented the Ayatollah regime's attempts to increase its influence in Azerbaijan, and then they began to export their 'soft power' to the country through third countries.

It must be said that the adherents of political Shiism have a lot of opportunities, both financial and social. Millions of Azerbaijanis in previous decades, having left for Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet republics for socio-economic reasons, settled there and live far from their homeland to this day. Basically, these are not very wealthy and not very educated, however, religious people who do not have the opportunity to communicate with fellow believers, attend official mosques, since they do not exist everywhere abroad.

Iran's propaganda 'soft power' -- 'Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly'

It is on such people that the ideologues of 'Ahl al-Bayt' are betting. Under the pretext of religious enlightenment, they lure such Muslims outside their homeland and instil in them extremist ideas about Islam that promote inter-confessional enmity, turning them into potential material for the implementation of their expansionist plans.

That is why Tehran has launched its tentacles not only in the eastern countries -- since the mid-1990s, a number of Ahl al-Bayt branches have been established in Russia as well. A significant part of its population is Muslim, but they have their own places of worship and their own preachers, but newcomers are easy prey for 'soft power.' And one must say that many Azerbaijanis joined the Russian religious cells of the 'Ahl al-Bayt' with their sweet-voiced mullahs-agitators, and some of them even began to lead them.

Rais Suleymanov, editor-in-chief of the Russian scientific journal Muslim World and an expert at the Institute of National Strategies, said in an interview with Russian media that the first Ahl al-Bayt society (chaired by Musa Gurbanov) was founded in Moscow in 1996. In 2006, a similar entity appeared in Yekaterinburg (chairman Elkhan Samedov). Another has been operating in Moscow since 2018 under the chairmanship of Almardan Gurbanov. Branches of 'Ahl al-Bayt' also function in Khabarovsk, St Petersburg, Rostov, Samara, Dagestan, Astrakhan. And, according to the expert, the members of all these Shiite societies are mainly Azerbaijanis, although there are also representatives of other ethnicities. It is difficult to say whether such formations are fully governed by the 'Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly,' but there is no doubt that they all exist under the auspices of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Moreover, Azerbaijanis who received their religious education in Iran were involved in the creation of this religious-political network in the post-Soviet space in the early 2000s.

Undoubtedly, one of the main goals of the spread of Iranian Shiism in Russia is to form the levers of influence of the Islamic republic abroad in general and in this country in particular.

At the same time, the Iranian special services are potentially processing Azerbaijani believers living in the Russian Federation in order to turn them into a means of inciting separatism in the southern part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Analysis of the activities of Iranian special services in relation to the Ahl al-Bayt communities in recent years suggests that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is now seeking to foment separatism in the southern region of Azerbaijan and form radical Shiite groups controlled directly from Tehran. This is evidenced by the growing interest of the Iranian special services to Azerbaijanis living in Russia and the southern region of Azerbaijan. As a result of this activity, some of our compatriots in the Russian Federation, mainly from the southern regions, appear on social networks in the spirit of Iranian propaganda against Azerbaijan.

Haji Sabir Akbari Jiddi

Representative of Ayatollah Jiddi and his associate Jafarov

One such organisation is the Moscow Islamic Centre, which has been operating since 2014. Its leader is Haji Sabir Akbari Jiddi. Concurrently, he is the representative of the religious leader of Iran in Russia. Every Friday, the centre hosts religious meetings, which are attended mainly by Azerbaijanis. Another similar formation in the same place, in the Russian Federation, is the 'Husseinia Society,' headed by Famil Jafarov from Lankaran, a pupil and ally of Haji Sabir. The Azerbaijanis who settled in Moscow say that the representative of Ayatollah Khamenei resolves various organisational issues precisely through Famil Jafarov. In addition, due to the recent decrease in the number of people visiting the Moscow Islamic Centre, many have returned to their homeland, several priests and preachers arrived from Iran to help Jiddi.

Another large religious organisation operating in Moscow is the Russian Islamic Society Ahl al-Bayt, which is headed by Haji Nizami Baloglanov. He also comes from the southern regions of Azerbaijan. In July of this year, Baloglanov asked President Vladimir Putin to provide new premises for the organisation. As it turned out, he was forced to relocate his office, since a new mosque was built on Prospekt Mira, where he had been for 20 years. Baloglanov claims that the mosque was built with the money of Azerbaijanis, but it was owned by a Tatar named Rashid, who now does not allow representatives of the society there.

How Azerbaijanis in Georgia from Sunnis turned into Shiites

Iranian intelligence services are systematically working to spread Shiism in another neighbouring country, Georgia, and it seems that they have achieved serious results. Their activity there, as in Russia, began in the early 2000s and was localised in the regions inhabited by Azerbaijanis. It is noteworthy that back in the 1990s, almost 90 per cent of Azerbaijanis living compactly in two or three regions of Georgia professed Sunni Islam. Now 60 per cent of them identify themselves as Shiite.

There is no doubt that pro-Iranian organisations, which have proliferated in Georgia over the past 20 years, have had a hand in this metamorphosis. However, in 2014, the Georgian government became concerned about Iran's growing ideological and political expansion and began to take decisive measures. First of all, the Office of Muslims of Georgia was created, which is funded by the state. And at the beginning of 2018, the mass deportation of Iranian emissaries from the country began. Nevertheless, several societies and centres run by Iranian citizens and which Tehran considers to be the basis for the formation of a pro-Iranian religious ideology among Azerbaijanis continue to operate there.

This is, for example, the Iranian Cultural Centre in Georgia, which began work in 2010 and closely cooperates with the Iranian Embassy. Its leader is Mehdi Mustafavi, a former adviser to the Iranian president and chairman of the Organisation for Cultural and Islamic Relations. In 2009, by the way, in this status he visited Baku and was received by the leadership of the Caucasus Muslims Office.

Mehdi Mustafavi

Other Iranian centres in Georgia include the so-called 'Iranian mosque.' Such 'mosques' function in the settlement of Vashlijuveri in Tbilisi (akhund is a citizen of Iran Akbari), in the Zemovedisi district (headed by Seyfulla Mudabbiri, whose brother Ali Mudabbiri was deported from the country). There is also a representative office of the Mustafa International University (headed by Davud Zarey) in Georgia.

Iran has not bypassed Ukraine too

Iranian special services penetrated into Ukraine, and again through the 'Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly.' The representative office of this organisation in Kyiv is headed by Ahmed Sabunchu, a native of Tabriz. The Ahl al-Bayt cultural centre has been operating there since the end of 2010 in a three-story building on Otradny Avenue in Kyiv. According to some reports, the building was purchased at the expense of Azerbaijanis living in Ukraine.

In the premises of the centre there are exclusively Iranian symbols, portraits of the religious leaders of this country. The active members of 'Ahl al-Bayt' are citizens of Ukraine of Azerbaijani origin. Their main activity is to promote, along with Islamic values, the interests of Tehran, for which they in every possible way lure the poor representatives of the Azerbaijani community to various religious ritual ceremonies.

As a rule, at such events, in addition to sermons, anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans are proclaimed. Sources in the Azerbaijani community of Ukraine testify that society activists have long been agents of Iranian influence. Moreover, along with agitation against the United States and Israel, propaganda against the Azerbaijani state is also being carried out. Accusations of 'betrayal of Islamic values' are being voiced against Baku.

Ahmed Sabunchu

Namik Babakhanov and what he does...

Namik Babakhanov is one of the radical Shiites who are active in the religious field in Kyiv. He has been in the capital of Ukraine since 2010. An ardent supporter of 'Ahl al-Bayt,' enjoying great prestige among the believers of Azerbaijanis in Kyiv. Actively promoting the pro-Iranian lifestyle on Facebook, Babakhanov organises various religious gatherings, in which Iranian clerics often participate. He also maintains close ties with the Iranian Embassy in Ukraine. On his YouTube profile, Channel 12, this figure regularly posts videos on religious topics.

Apparently, the Iranian special services, which regard Azerbaijanis as a social base in the former Soviet republics, plan to use them in the future to create their own proxies or armed terrorist groups to implement Tehran's political interests in the world, including in Azerbaijan, as happened in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Currently, Iran, through its proxy forces, including the powerful Lebanese organisation Hezbollah, which is Iran's largest lever in the region, is involved in several armed conflicts in the Middle East. Building puppet armies overseas is a key strategy for the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Its author was General Qasem Soleimani, who died in an American drone strike near Baghdad in early 2020.

In any case, General Ghulamali Rashid, commander of SEPAH air defence base 'Hatam al-Anbiya,' recently proudly announced that the Islamic Republic has six armies outside the country. And they all act in the interests of Tehran. The general recalled that these foreign armies consist of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, the pro-Iranian group in Syria, the Hashdi al-Shaabi group in Iraq and the Houthi Ansar Allah in Yemen.

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