Iran: The Huseyniyyun Brigade and Iran’s Latest Campaign Against Azerbaijan

Iran’s media outlets, clerics, and students from the theological and ideological center of Qom have recently staged protests outside the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran and consulate in Tabriz, which is all part of a massive information war against Azerbaijan. In addition, pro-Iranian demonstrations in Georgia, Germany, and Baku and meetings in Moscow have condemned Azerbaijan’s government for an incident in which a policeman allegedly insulted the name of God and accused the country of being ruled by Israel and Zionists. In targeting Azerbaijan’s foreign policy – its relations with Israel, Turkey, and the West – the Tehran regime shows its inability to accept the geopolitical changes in the region following Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War. 

In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Iran’s President Raisi said that Iran objects to any foreign military presence in the region, especially in the Caspian near the coast of Iran. This also demonstrates that Iran is very concerned about the Turkish-Azerbaijani military alliance as Tehran opposes normalization between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Armenia and Turkey and the creation of a Zangezur corridor linking these countries. Iran’s concerns started with the Azerbaijan army’s victorious liberation of the occupied lands in Karabakh in 2020. Iran preferred the continuation of the Armenian occupation as it gave Iran a buffer zone between the Azerbaijan Republic and northwest Iran, mainly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. More than 130 km of the previously uncontrolled border allowed Iran to smuggle drugs and narcotics to Europe, drug smuggling being a significant source of revenue for the Revolutionary Guards. Azerbaijan’s effective control has deprived Iran of a profitable narco route to the north.  Iran also fears the national awakening process in Iranian Azerbaijan, where education in Azerbaijani is prohibited, despite the right being enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Iranian Azerbaijanis, the second largest ethnic group in Iran, are demanding education in their mother tongue, the end of oppression, and the denial of cultural and human rights. 

Iran’s hybrid campaign once again requires Azerbaijan to open its embassy in Israel, deepen security cooperation with Turkey and Israel and finally advocate for and defend the human rights of Iranian Azerbaijanis. In addition, the urgent reform of religious institutions and mosques to separate them from Iran’s influence and recognition of the Huseyniyyun as a terrorist organization are necessary steps. 

The mobilization of Iran’s media and other material assets in staging this hybrid warfare campaign signals that it is political pressure on Azerbaijan and an attempt to destabilize Baku. The reason is the alleged insult of God by a policeman in Azerbaijan. It all started with a hunger strike by a radical Iran-educated Shia cleric, Taleh Bagirzade. He is imprisoned for calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and creation of a Sharia-based system and for engaging with his supporters in an armed confrontation with police, which resulted in the death of two police officers and four radicals in the religiously conservative Nardaran village in 2015. Bagirzade says he considers Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei his “red line” in a leaked audiotape talking about his relationship with the political entity known as the Popular Front Party led by Ali Kerimli in the Azerbaijan Republic. It’s known in Azerbaijan that Tehran has invested hugely in the Qom-educated Bagirzade. Bagirzade’s radical and mostly political speeches and his subsequent politicization with the help of the Popular Front Party leader could even have landed him an official meeting with the US State Department official Bridget A. Brink who visited Azerbaijan between 23 and24 November 2015.

However, Mr. Bagirzade refused to participate in that meeting as it could have damaged his reputation in Iran. Bagirzade stopped his hunger strike after Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani urged him to do so. The message was delivered by Hasan Amoli, an Iranian cleric from Ardabil who threatened Azerbaijan and called on the IRGC to hold military drills on Azerbaijan’s border as a means of intimidation last year. Before him, Ojag-Nejat, the Supreme Leader’s representative to Azerbaijan for 30 years who got expelled from the country amid the Iran-Azerbaijan confrontation last year, sent a letter to Bagirzade asking him to cease his hunger strike. Ojag-Nejat is well known for his role in creating a strong Iranian network and recruiting people in Azerbaijan. His name frequently crops up in the Azerbaijani media in reports on violent provocations by pro-Iranian radicals over the last 30 years. However, one group, the Huseyniyyun, has taken center stage in this campaign with its violent rhetoric.

The Huseyniyyun brigade was created and named by Qasem Soleimani, the late head of the Qods Force of Iran’s IRGC, according to Tohid Ibrahimbeyli’s interview with the Fars News Agency. Tohid Ibrahimbeyli is the brigade leader, who has been in Syria several times and has been pictured holding weapons and with Soleimani. The brigade consists of Azerbaijani nationals educated in Iran and currently residing there with the protection of Iran’s highest authorities and the IRGC. Huseyniyyun is part of the Iran-led terror organizations in the Middle East under the umbrella of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Huseyniyyun member Yunis Safarov, a Russian citizen and resident of Azerbaijan’s second city Ganja, actively fought among Iran’s Shia militias in the Syrian civil war and later tried to assassinate the mayor of Ganja, injuring the latter and his bodyguard. A week later, two policemen were killed in Ganja by a crowd of people chanting religious slogans. Law-enforcement agencies arrested two suspects and killed another in an attempt to arrest him. Later it turned out that the dead suspect had been involved in the Syrian civil war in 2016. 

As Iran’s fingerprints became evident in the Ganja terror events, Tohid Ibrahimbeyli acknowledged in one of his videos that Yunis Safarov was a member of the Huseyniyyun organization. Ibrahimbeyli, Orkhan Mammadov, Isgander Huseynzade, and other Azerbaijani nationals from the Huseyniyyun organization actively use social media to spread Iran’s political and ideological interests, calling for a violent overthrow of the secular system in Azerbaijan and the creation of a so-called  “Karima state” in the form of an Islamic Republic. Huseyniyyun members attack Israel, Turkey, and the US in their speeches and criticize the government of Azerbaijan for its diplomatic relationships with these countries. They also call for violent attacks against foreign embassies. Speaking at the conference on the South Caucasus: Development and Cooperation in April this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan told an Iranian journalist that he had given a list of 20 Azerbaijani nationals residing in Iran and involved in violent and radical messages to the then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for extradition and received no response whatsoever. This shows that Iran protects and finances the Huseyniyyun organization to be used against Azerbaijan, just as it uses Hezbollah.

Rufat Ahmadzada is a graduate of City, University of London. His research area covers the South Caucasus and Iran. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. 

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