Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Iranians Said Seeking to Promote Islamic Revolution in Azerbaijan

Paul Goble

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.

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Urges UN to Adopt ‘Russian Model’ for Inter-religious Dialogue

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 9 – The Russian government is calling on the United Nations to create a special permanent forum for high-level inter-religious dialogue based on “the Russian model of inter-religious relations” to promote “the exchange of opinions between representatives of the basic world confessions.”
The idea, supported by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the UN General Assembly debates in September, was discussed at the end of last week at a special meeting in New York. Representing Moscow at its sessions were Deputy Foreign Minister A.V. Yakovenko and Russian Orthodoxy Metropolitan Valentin of Orenburg.
In a press release on this session, the Russian Foreign Ministry said “the Russian model of inter-religious relations has long been based on respect for the faith of different peoples, the way of life of traditional communities, and the organization of the family and society on the basis of their principles.”
And as a result of its approach, the ministry release continued, the Russian government has “created conditions for civil peace and strengthened stability.” And throughout its history Russia, the release said, thus “has not known religious wars.”
Obviously, diplomats are expected to put the best possible face on their country’s situation, especially at meetings like th eone in New York last week, but this latest claim by Moscow was called into question by five events that took place even as the Russian diplomat, the Russian cleric, and the Russian foreign ministry were making it.
First, last week marked the 16th anniversary of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s decree expelling from the Russian capital “persons of Caucasus nationality,” a decree that has been copied by many other Russian cities and that continues to be used against Muslim groups (http://www.nr2/moskow/143471.html).
Second, last week was also the anniversary of the Russian occupation of Kazan in 1552, an event that several commentaries suggested certainly does not correspond to the Russian foreign ministry’s suggestion that Russia has never known religious wars (http://www.polit.ru/author/2007/10/05/kazan.html).
Third, Circassians held protests against Moscow’s plans to ignore their interests during the Sochi Olympics and its ongoing efforts to portray the inclusion of their lands in the Russian state as voluntary – despite the expulsion of more than a million of their ancestors a century ago (http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=13420).
Fourth, last week also marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption of Russia’s Freedom of Conscience law, a measure that participants at a conference suggested had led to greater state involvement in the internal affairs of Russia’s Muslims rather than greater liberties (http://www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=876).
Specifically, experts said, Moscow had used divisions within Russia’s Muslim community based on the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) system to justify taking actions on behalf of Russia’s Muslims even if such actions were not what that community would want (http://www.islamnews.ru/index.php?name=News&op=News&sid=7630).
And fifth, Russian writers pointed to rising Christian-Muslim tensions in the North Caucasus as a possible trigger for a new and more violent conflict there (http://www.fondsk.ru/print.php?id=995) and to growing problems between residents and Muslim migrants to Russian cities (http://www.ami-tass.ru/print/27863.html).
Creating a permanent forum for the discussion of religious affairs at the United Nations is not necessarily a bad idea. Indeed, as Metropolitan Valentin quite properly observed last week, many of the clashes between religions are based on ignorance, either about the faith of others or even one’s own.
But to be useful for the international community, as opposed to a single country or group of countries, such a dialogue needs to be based on a respect for facts not on false claims however attractive they may be to some. And as last week’s news demonstrates, a claim that Russia has never known serious religious conflicts is simply disingenuous.