After an Azerbaijani MP was shot and wounded this week, some of his colleagues immediately pointed the finger at Iran, whose relations with Azerbaijan have been steadily worsening.
On the evening of March 28, Fazil Mustafa, a member of Azerbaijani parliament and chair of the Great Order Party, was shot several times near his home outside Baku. He suffered wounds in his shoulder and leg, and was hospitalized and underwent surgery. His condition is satisfactory and his wounds are not life-threatening.
Azerbaijan's State Security Service called the incident a terror attack and launched a criminal investigation on charges of an "assassination attempt on the life of a state official or public figure in order to end his service or political activity or to take revenge for this activity" and unlawful possession of firearms.
The next morning, Mustafa was able to give an interview to pro-government news agency Haqqin.az. "I was about to drive into the garage, and suddenly the windshield shattered. I didn't understand what was going on. I felt a terrible pain in my shoulder. And only after the pain I realized that it was shooting, I heard the sound of shots," he said. "I opened the door and jumped out of the car. I had to take a few steps to the gate, when the second bullet hit me in the leg. I went into the house and told [my family] to quickly close the gate."
Mustafa is not a member of the ruling party, but he supports the government of President Ilham Aliyev like virtually everyone else in the legislature. He has been an outspoken critic of Iran, with which Azerbaijan has long had strained relations, in particular after the attack on its Tehran embassy in January.
At a February 1 session of the parliament, Mustafa called for legislation limiting tithing to religious institutions based abroad and increasing oversight on pilgrims visiting Shia shrine cities in Iran and Iraq. "Millions of manats every year are being sent from Azerbaijan to Iran in the name of the 'khums' tax. This must be addressed as a way of financing terrorism in the legislation," he said. "Besides, Iran's spy networks inside Azerbaijan are chosen from among those who go on pilgrimages to Mashhad, Karbala and Qom. Therefore, we have to codify in law that religious visits must take place under the total watch of the Azerbaijani state and that those visitors be characterized as groups at high risk."
Mustafa's well-known stances, and the fact that the shooting came on the eve of Azerbaijan opening its embassy in Israel -- Iran's archrival -- led several MPs and leading oppositionists to eagerly conclude that Tehran was to blame.
"There is an Iranian trace in this, 100 percent," ruling New Azerbaijan Party MP Mashhur Mammadov, told Turan news agency.
The head of the opposition Musavat Party, Arif Hajili, told news site Modern.az that he had seen calls for Mustafa's assassination posted in social media by "people apparently connected to Iran."
But then Haqqin.az, which is connected to Azerbaijan's security services, went against what had seemed like a gathering consensus in an article published on March 30. The site pointed out several unusual details of the incident - like how easily the victim was able to get away despite being shot at close range - which it said were evidence that it was not an Iranian assassination attempt. "Perhaps a third force tried to frame Iran, in order to further worsen relations between Baku and Tehran?" the author wondered.
Azerbaijan opened its embassy in Israel on March 29. The two countries' foreign ministers gave a joint briefing at the event. Neither mentioned the attack on Mustafa though Israeli top diplomat Eli Cohen emphasized the Iranian threat to both countries.
"Israel and Azerbaijan share the same perception of Iranian threats. The Iranian regime threatens our regions, finances, tourism, and destabilizes the entire Middle East. We must work together to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability. The way to do this is to use political, economic tools, and form a reliable and determined military force," he said.
Correction: Changed "evidence of an Iranian assassination attempt" to "evidence that it was not an Iranian assassination attempt" in the third to last paragraph.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.