From BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 110, June 23, 2010, by Dr. Alexander Murinson*:
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israeli–Azerbaijani trade, security, and diplomatic ties have raised Iran’s ire and exposed Azerbaijan and the Israeli assets there to terrorist threats. Azerbaijani security forces, in cooperation with Israel, have thwarted several Iranian-backed terrorist operations in that country, but there are reasons to believe that radical Islamic terrorist groups continue to operate in Azerbaijan at Iran’s behest. Israel should not only continue its successful joint security efforts with the government of Azerbaijan, but should also employ ‘soft power’ to enhance its positive image among the population and to counter Iranian influence.
Shortly after obtaining independence in 1991, Azerbaijan established friendly relations with Israel and has continuously been expanding its economic, political, and military ties with the Jewish state, as the state visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres on June 28-29, 2009 reinforced. Azerbaijan is Israel's top trade partner in the Muslim world with an annual trade volume in 2008 of $3.5 billion. It is the second largest exporter of oil to Israel after Russia. Relations between Baku and Jerusalem are perceived by the Iranian regime as a strategic threat.
Following the independence of the Central Asian states -- Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in the early 1990s -- Tehran launched a comprehensive program for the export of its “Islamic Revolution” to these countries. Numerous fundamentalist clerics, armed with pamphlets, books, audio equipment and money, flooded the capitals and larger cities of the newly independent states. The aim was to prevent a pro-Western orientation in foreign policy and to forge an ‘Islamic revival.’ The fulfillment of this ideological goal also required the creation of welfare organizations, the construction of schools and clinics, and the financing of religious parties.
More recently, after the June 2009 elections, Iran, in preparation for a possible Western (or Israeli) military strike against its nuclear facilities, increased its training and creation of terrorist cells in its periphery and the presence of its agents within countries allied with America and Israel, such as Azerbaijan. The appointment of Ahmad Vahidi, accused of masterminding the 1994 Buenos Aires attack on the Jewish Community Center, to the post of Defense Minister by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2009 reflects this thrust in Iranian policy. The Islamic regime has been stepping up its jihadioperations around the world, particularly by penetrating its Muslim neighbors.
Iranian Penetration in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is particularly vulnerable to Iranian influence due to its Shi'i population and to the large Azeri minority in Iran, which is highly integrated into the Islamic revolutionary elite. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i is Azeri, for instance. After Azerbaijani independence, Iranian authorities attempted to staff the majority of mosques in Azerbaijan with their own mullahs. Iran was most successful in Astara, Lankaran, and Massala, the more conservative areas bordering it.
The Iranian Cultural Center in Baku spread the message of Khomeini’s Islam, affecting many strata of Azeri society. The Iranian-based welfare foundation Imdad, dedicated to Ayatollah Khomeini, opened a regional branch in Azerbaijan in 1993. A bulletin published by the Iranian embassy in Baku stated that between 1993 and 2002 Imdad provided aid in 19 population centers to 19,000 indigents and 8,000 students in a country where almost three million of its citizens lack proper housing due to dire economic circumstances. Iranian aid organizations also distributed small grants and other assistance to refugees from the Karabagh region and to young families. The latest figures, from 2003, indicate that this aid reached 25 million dollars, a significant sum in this poor country.
The small, conservative town of Nardaran, near Baku, served as an important focus of Iranian religious and propaganda activities in Azerbaijan due to the location there of the important Pir (burial site) of Rehime Khanim, a local Shi'i saint. In 2002-2006, violent clashes with Nardaran state authorities, which originated from grievances over the unfair distribution of economic aid, transformed under Iranian tutelage into protests against the secular Constitution of the state. The riots, known as the Nardaran events, were organized by groups who received money, agitation literature, and some weapons from Iran.
Iranian fundamentalists also promoted their ideology by sponsoring political parties and movements in Azerbaijan. Accordingly, Iran funded the activities of the legal Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) and of the clandestine cells of Hizballah and Jayshallah (Army of God). Hizballah has operated clandestinely in Azerbaijan since 1993. Many of its Azerbaijani members underwent training in Iran and obtained weapons sufficient to arm a battalion of jihadis. Jayshallah, established in 1995, was determined to carry out attacks against Western targets, including the US embassy, in Baku.
The IPA, founded in Nardaran in 1991, openly espoused anti-American and anti-Semitic views. The Ministry of Justice cancelled the party’s registration in 1995 due to the indictment of its senior members on charges of treason and posing a threat to state security, but the party has continued its activities without official registration. Investigations of the arrested party members revealed that the party’s leaders had active ties with the Iranian leadership. IPA members were later implicated in Hizballah and Jayshallah networks. More recently, in 2009, the IPA organized anti-Israel demonstrations in Baku during Operation Cast Lead and Shimon Peres’ visit to the city.
To counter Iranian attempts to undermine the secular regime in the Republic of Azerbaijan, in the late 1990s, former President Heydar Aliyev banned and expelled Iranian mullahs who were preaching in Azerbaijani mosques. In 2000, Azerbaijani security forces arrested members of Tehran-sponsored terrorist organizations. In 2007, Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security (MNB) apprehended members of another group linked to the Iranian secret service. The members of this group, called the Northern Fighters of Imam Mahdi (NIMA), had been involved in monitoring the activities of American, Israeli, and other Western diplomatic missions and companies on Azerbaijani soil. Founded in 2005, the group's 16 active members had also traveled to Iran in 2005-2006 in order to establish links with the Iranian Intelligence Service (MISIRI) and Sepah-e Pasdaran, the notorious Guardians of the Iranian Islamic revolution. NIMA produced 150 reports for its Iranian sponsors on the activities of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel, and was paid US $10,300.
In the most recent case of a thwarted terrorist attack in Azerbaijan, six suspected perpetrators -- four Azerbaijanis and two Lebanese members of a Hizballah cell -- were charged with planning attacks on several strategic sites in Azerbaijan, including the Gabala anti-missile radar station (the largest anti-missile defense installation in the South Caucasus) and the Israeli embassy in Baku on July 4, 2009. The subsequent investigation showed that the Lebanese citizens, Ali Mohammed Kerekli and Ali Husyen Nadjmedin, who had ties with al-Qaida and Hizballah, were the leaders of the terrorist cells. It surfaced during the trial that the Sepah-e Pasdaran had organized and run this secret cell. It was also revealed that since the Lebanese operatives had poor knowledge of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani language, they had received assistance from Iranian agents, who provided them with an interpreter. The defendants were charged with preparation to commit acts of terrorism as well as state treason.
Azerbaijan’s growing ties with Israel are a threat to Iran, which has intensified its efforts to destabilize its neighbor. For Israel, ties with Azerbaijan are extremely important. Israel has increased its efforts to foster understanding and positive perceptions among the population of this important Muslim partner.
If the Israeli government desires to strengthen its image as a true friend of Azerbaijan, Israelis should clearly side with Baku in its conflict with Armenia on the issue of Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories.
In the pursuit of its avowed goal of creating the Med Stream project, a multi-purpose offshore pipeline project that not only is purported to connect Turkey and Israel via the Mediterranean Sea but also to extend the Turkish-Israeli energy network to India, Israel should find profitable ways for Azerbaijan to be involved.
It would also be wise for Israel to impress upon Azerbaijan the importance of political and economic reform in order to preempt economic and political unrest, which plays into the hands of the Islamists. It is up to Israel to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the young generation of Azerbaijanis and the greater Muslim world.
*Alexander Murinson, an independent researcher, holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is the author of Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Caucasus.