Vienna, October 9 – Baku has brought to trial 16 members of an underground group the authorities there identify as the “Northern Mahdi Army” and say was organized, trained and supplied by Iran’s Republican Guard in order to overthrow the current Azerbaijani government and impose an Islamic state on the Iranian model there.
The trial, which began yesterday in closed session some ten months after Azerbaijani police arrested the group, throws into sharp relief the growing tensions just beneath the surface of what both Baku and Tehran have generally sought to portray as good-neighborly relations (http://www.strana.ru/doc_print.html?id=76515&cid=9).
According to the prosecution, Russian and Azerbaijani media report, the members of this group underwent “special training in Iran [under the direction of that country’s Republican Guard, a group the United States and other countries have identified as a terrorist organization] in the use of various forms of arms and explosive devices.”
The notion that Iran would try to “export its revolution” to Azerbaijan, the only other country with a Shiite majority, has long been common ground in discussions about Azerbaijan, but the suggestion that Iran has set up “an underground army” to overthrow the government there has raised a variety of concerns there and elsewhere.
First, many analysts, human rights activists and opposition figures in Azerbaijan see this case and the media storm it has raised as yet another effort by Baku to justify the imposition of tighter control over social and religious institutions there and to win support in Washington by highlighting its involvement in the fight against terrorism.
Those expressing this concern point to the numerous Iranian missionaries who have been operating in Azerbaijan off and on for many years and to the fact that there are now about 1,000 Muslim communities there which have never registered with the government and many of which may be channels for the spread of Iranian influence.
By talking about this now and in terms of Iran’s support for such groups, the Azerbaijani authorities are building a case for actions against these Iranian links that few countries around the world would be likely to speak out against and that many of them – including the United States -- would in fact welcome.
Second, a second view suggests that the latest Iranian action – which in fact began some time ago – as Tehran’s warning that should Azerbaijan allow the U.S. to use its territory for an attack on Iran or seek to stir up the roughly 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, Tehran can and will respond.
Recent articles in Baku, Moscow and elsewhere about “Southern Azerbaijan,” either as a natural sphere of influence for Baku or as useful lever against Tehran in the event of a broader conflict between the United States and Iran over nuclear issues has so infuriated the Iranians that they feel compelled to highlight what they can do.
And third, a third interpretation now on offer holds that this situation highlights divisions in the Iranian capital, with the Republican Guard operating on a long leash and possibly at variance with or even in opposition to the policies of other parts of the Tehran regime.
According to this view, Iran may be now be experiencing what many other governments have learned before: it is relatively easy to recruit people to do things, but it is far more difficult to control them in ways that a carefully calibrated and variable policy inevitably requires.
All these elements are likely to be present in some degree, with the balance changing over time, both in response to the actions of Baku and the calculations of Tehran, but at the very least, this trial, especially if more information comes out over the next few days, highlights the dark underside of a complicated relationship.
After all, at the official level, both Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have stressed that the relations between their two countries are “friendly.” Indeed, in August of this year, the Iranian president even made an official visit to Baku.
But despite the warmth expressed at that time, the Azerbaijanis were cautious, with Aliyev refusing the Iranian leader’s suggestion of visa free travel between the two countries. After all, Aliyev certainly already knew about the Northern Mahdi Army and about the many ways visa free arrangements could help promote its activities.