Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.
As part of an effort to contain radical Islam, officials in Azerbaijan are carrying out an anti-Iran campaign on state-controlled news outlets. The media blitz follows the recent arrest of leading members of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, a group believed to be sympathetic to Iran.
In the weeks following the January 7 Islamic Party arrests, Azerbaijan’s national television channels aired prime-time news reports accusing Iran of interfering in Azerbaijan’s domestic affairs, supporting fundamentalists and fostering close ties with Baku’s longtime foe, Armenia. Interviews with “ordinary people” who criticized Tehran’s allegedly “negative” behavior toward Azerbaijan were also prominently featured.
Amid an increasingly bitter debate within Azerbaijan about the role of Islam, such references to alleged meddling by the Islamic Republic easily excite sensitivities. TV station managers have not commented on the reasons for the denunciations of Iran. But one national TV station news editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.org that an order to air the reports came from President Ilham Aliyev’s administration.
“We even received examples of ‘destructive Iranian activity,’ on which we should focus -- the support of Islamic fundamentalists and close ties with Armenia,” he said.
Ali Hasanov, head of the administration’s Public Policy Department, has refused to comment to journalists on the anti-Iran PR campaign. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson similarly declined to speak to EurasiaNet.org.
No explicit reason has been given for the campaign – MPs cite vicious Iranian comments about Azerbaijan without substantiating their remarks – but Tehran’s alleged support of conservative Muslims in Azerbaijan has been a recurring theme in the campaign. Such references could hearken back to the Islamic Party, a group that was banned in 1995, and has since long been termed “pro-Iranian” by the Azerbaijani press.
Islamic Party leader Movsum Samadov was arrested amid widespread controversy about the Azerbaijani government’s refusal to allow women and girls to wear a hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering for females, in public schools. In a video message posted on his party’s website, Samadov called for the overthrow of President Aliyev’s government.
No official connection between the Islamic Party and Tehran has ever been verified, but many Azerbaijani analysts take it as a given. “There’s no doubt that Iran supports the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan in its harsh statements and actions against the government, and does it to violate political stability in Azerbaijan,” asserted Mubariz Ahmadoglu, the director of the Center of Political Innovations and Technologies, a pro-government research center in Baku.
Tehran has maintained an official silence on Samadov’s arrest and on the hijab controversy. However, a letter from Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani that criticized the informal ban sparked anger among many Azerbaijanis. An appeal for Samadov’s release from prison has since been denied; the investigation into his case is ongoing.
MPs from pro-government parties have also sounded the alarm about Iran, but without mentioning the Islamic Party.
On February 1, one member of the tiny Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party called for Azerbaijanis to avoid traveling to Iran; Tehran’s abolition of visa requirements for Azerbaijanis “hides a lot of dangers and leads to the uncontrolled export of drugs to Azerbaijan,” media outlets quoted Zahid Oruj as saying.
Other MPs have tried to focus attention on Iran’s close relationship with Armenia. Tehran’s close ties to Yerevan, “allows the aggressor to continue its policy against Azerbaijan,” claimed Democratic Reforms Party leader Asim Mollazade. The recent announcement of plans to build an Iranian oil pipeline to Armenia has generally fallen under this same categorization.
Adding to the public message, Diaspora groups such as the Global Congress of Azerbaijanis and the International Center of the Diaspora, have picketed the Iranian Embassy in Baku, chanting slogans such as “A single Azerbaijan with Tabriz [the largest city in Iran’s ethnic Azeri province of East Azerbaijan -- ed] as its capital!” or, in reference to Armenia, “Iran is a friend of the enemy of Muslims!”
Surprisingly, these events took place against the background of a significant gas deal between Tehran and Baku. Under the deal, Azerbaijani exports to Iran are expected to rise to 1 billion cubic meters in 2011. One Baku-based political analyst asserts that there is no contradiction between the gas deal, announced on January 13, and the ongoing anti-Iran campaign. In Azerbaijan, business is business and politics is politics, he elaborated. “The gas supplies to Iran are mutually beneficial to both countries,” said Elhan Shahinoglu, director of the Atlas research center in Baku. “SOCAR [the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic] sells its spare gas to Iran for a market price, while Iran secures gas for its northern provinces, especially during winter.”
Iran, so far, has kept largely silent in response to the public criticism. On February 8, Iranian Ambassador Mammadbagir Bakhrami commented only that Iranian diplomatic initiatives were designed to “unite the two nations, not to divide them,” news outlets reported. Bakhrami announced plans for a meeting this spring between Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and Azerbaijan’s senior leaders, but did not disclose topics for discussion, 1news.az reported.
Baku has not yet responded to Bakhrami’s customary invitation for President Aliyev to visit Tehran in late March to celebrate the Persian New Year of Novruz.