by Eldar Mamedov
Highly unusual events have been rocking the small, but strategically important Caspian nation of Azerbaijan during the last week. An attempt on the life of Elmar Veliyev, the mayor of the nation´s second city, Ganja, took place on July 3. Although seriously wounded, the mayor survived. But a week later two policemen were killed during related protests in the city centre.
Although the details of the case remain murky, the authorities were quick to blame “Islamic extremists” for the crime. They pointed to Yunis Safarov as a main suspect. Safarov is a Russian citizen of Azerbaijani origin who allegedly lived in Qom, a spiritual center of Iranian Shiism. The authorities claimed that Safarov “fought in Syria for the same goal he pursued in Azerbaijan—an establishment of sharia-based state.”
This line is full of glaring inconsistencies. The Qom connection strongly suggests that Safarov is a Shiite. Yet those who fight in Syria for the “sharia-based” state are Salafis, the bitter enemies of the Shiites. The Shiites, on the contrary, have rallied around the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad. The officials’ earlier insistence that the assassination attempt was merely a criminal act devoid of any political or religious motivation only fueled the deep cynicism many Azerbaijanis felt about the official version. Some even believe it was a false flag operation to justify a subsequent repression of any opposition to President Ilham Aliyev’s rule.
Despite the obvious holes in the official account, the authorities seem eager to push for the “Shiite trace” narrative. The pro-government website haqqin.az, usually an accurate barometer of the official mood, decried a nefarious “Shiite-liberal alliance” supposedly plotting to overthrow the secular regime. Former minister of foreign affairs Tofiq Zulfugarov went a step further and directly blamed Iran for stoking the “Islamic revolutionary unrest” in Ganja. He warned Tehran to “re-consider” Baku’s position of not allowing the territory of Azerbaijan to be used as a platform for third countries´ hostilities against Iran.
Zulfugarov, although technically still an official of the ministry of foreign affairs, does not speak for the Azerbaijani government. Yet in a tightly controlled system like Azerbaijan’s, any freelancing on such a sensitive issue is hardly conceivable. So what does Baku’s embrace of an anti-Shiite/anti-Iranian narrative portend for Azerbaijan’s positioning on the US-led efforts to destabilize Iran?
The idea of luring Azerbaijan into a regional anti-Iranian alignment, alongside the Persian Gulf monarchies, has always had enthusiastic supporters in Washington. Azerbaijan´s geographical proximity to Iran and the possibility of using the large Azeri minority in Iran to undermine the Islamic Republic represent useful assets in pro-regime-change circles.
Some factors make Azerbaijan potentially receptive to such overtures. Baku’s staunchly secularist elite dislikes and distrusts the Islamic Republic. Despite improvements in bilateral relations, notably after the election of Hassan Rouhani as the president of Iran in 2013, Azerbaijan still suspects Iran of harboring expansionist ambitions and is irritated by Tehran´s close relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan´s regional foe.
Although Azerbaijan, like most of the international community, formally welcomed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, recent statements by some of its senior officials were ambiguous. For example, the country’s influential ambassador to Washington Elin Suleymanov, who is reportedly close to President Aliyev, said that the JCPOA should have benefited from “input from America´s regional allies.” Another senior official told LobeLog that, in his opinion, the deal was flawed as it did not impose restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles. These views are entirely in line with Israeli and Gulf positions. That, perhaps, is not surprising, given the investment Azerbaijan makes in cultivating the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington.
Yet, there are limits to Baku fully and publicly embracing the Israeli-Gulf line on Iran.
First, as Azerbaijan’s oil resources, the basis of its recent relative prosperity, are finite, economic diversification is key to maintaining the country’s stability. Leveraging Azerbaijan’s geographic position to turn it into a regional hub for trade, transport, and logistics is a key pillar of this strategy. For such a strategy to succeed, constructive relations with Iran are essential. This is the background behind the trilateral Azerbaijan-Russia-Iran dialogue, launched by President Aliyev at the first trilateral summit in Baku in 2016.
Second, and perhaps more important, Baku is wary of antagonizing the increasing number of Shiite believers in the country. Although reliable data are hard to come by, Kanan Rovshanoglu in a paper for Baku Research Institute, an independent think-tank, points to the growing popularity in Azerbaijan of the Ashura ceremonies held to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, slain in Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, in 680 AD. There is also a significant increase in the number of Azerbaijani Shiite pilgrims to Iran and Iraq. In recent years, both the Ashura ceremonies and pilgrimages have reportedly grown more politicized as their participants demand the release of imprisoned Azerbaijani Islamist leaders such as Taleh Bagirov from the Muslim Unity Movement. The regime in Baku is wary that in the case of a bilateral crisis, Tehran could mobilize these politically active Shiites against Aliyev. So, they serve as a deterrent against Baku moving too far against Tehran.
The Azerbaijani government perhaps believes it can have it both ways: reaping the economic benefits of cooperation with Iran and using the Shiite card to discredit any domestic opposition to the ruling regime. Alternatively, the haste with which Baku declared a Shiite connection to the violent incidents in Ganja could also stem from the authorities’ own confusion and incompetence. When something wrong happens, they blame whomever it takes, without regard to logic, consistency, or consequences.
Even if Iran chooses restraint and treats events in Azerbaijan as an internal affair, demonizing the Shiites will inevitably lead to a new crisis in bilateral relations. This will undermine the favored narrative of the Azerbaijani government that it represents a reliable and stable partner in the region. This will in turn damage Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, and not only vis-a-vis Iran, but also other players, such as the European Union, with which Azerbaijan strives to develop closer relationship and which attaches high priority to preserving the JCPOA with Iran.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.