Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev

Nowruz is the symbolic time for reconciliation and neighborliness both in Azerbaijan and Iran – an old Persian tradition which celebrates the arrival of spring with anticipations of a better New Year.

While relations between Baku and Tehran have faced noticeable cooling after the US diplomatic cables leaked November 2010, quoting Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev’s concerns on Iranian provocations in his country, Azeris waited for four months to reconcile with Iranian leaders.

Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijani Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Tehran on March 27, 2011, to participate in the Nowruz celebrations, aiming to rebuild the bridge between his boss and the Iranian leaders.

One year later, the tensions between once-friendly neighbors not only remain, but have become worse than they have ever been; in fact, the relations have run a worrisome course.

For some analysts in Baku, Tehran leaders likely “didn’t forget Aliyev’s complaints to Americans”, in which he described the Iranian provocations in his country as

not only the financing of radical Islamic groups and Hezbollah terrorists, but also:

– [Iranian] financing of violent Ashura ceremonies in Nakhchivan,

– organizing demonstrations in front of Azeri consulates in Tabriz and Istanbul,

– organizing violent religious procession in Baku,

– using the President’s photo alongside the Star of David on the Azeri-language Seher TV broadcast into Azerbaijan, and

–causing the tension in the Caspian.

Hijab ban and arrests of the Islamists

A harsher tone has been evident since August 2011, when Iranian Armed Forces chief of staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi warned President Aliyev over the government’s ban of the Hijab for teenage girls in Azerbaijani high schools.

In his statement that was published by Iranian state-run Fars and Mehr News Agencies, Firouzabadi called on Aliyev to “strengthen his government by respecting Islamic rules and people’s demands.”

“Otherwise he [Aliyev] will face a dark future since people’s  awakening cannot be suppressed,” Iran’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi said, FNA reported.

Naturally, the hijab ban aroused the ire of the religious Islamic community in Azerbaijan with their periodic demonstrations since the end of 2010.

But Firouzabadi’s remarks were a reaction to latest demonstrations where Azeri police reportedly used force against the protestors of Hjab ban.

Baku officials sharply reacted to general’s remarks by summoning Iran’s ambassador to the Foreign Ministry. Tehran renounced Firouzabadi’s speech.

But a day after, Azeri National Security Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a joint statement, announcing the arrest of three men suspected of establishing a radical religious group Jafari, with financial support from the Iranian Cultural Center in Baku, which is actually, a cultural body of the Iranian Embassy. Tehran declined commenting the accusations.

However, the tensions between the two countries mounted again two month later, when an Azeri court on October 7 sentenced the leader of the outlawed and overtly pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan Movsun Samadov to 12 years, who was arrested earlier that year after he posted videos denouncing President Aliyev.

Samadov was convicted of “preparing acts of terrorism, concealing weapons, and inciting his supporters to revolution”. The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan was outlawed in 1995.

On October 25, a top Iranian Jurisprudent warned against the Islamophobia in Azerbaijan calling the country’s officials “to learn from the [collapse of the] Soviet Union and current crisis in the Muslim world” and warned them “to be eradicated should they continue the measures against the people.”

Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, in his weekly teaching session referred to the worsening Islamophobia in Azerbaijan and said, “The majority of the people in Azerbaijan are Shia but the government has recently started to destroy mosques and attacks the people”.

Azeri officials condemned Shirazi’s remark, accusing him “of spreading slander and attempts to put the religious people against Azeri state”.

Following Shirazi’s speech another Grand Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani later in October sent a message to Presiden Aliyev, strongly denouncing a ban on Islamic dress code recently imposed in Azerbaijan as a move against Islam and the human rights laws.

Border tensions

While Iranian Ayatollahs were continuing slamming Azerbaijan, the tensions flared when an unexpected border clash between Azeri soldiers and Iranian border guards left one Iranian guard dead.

The incident happened on the southern Azerbaijani border on October 19.  The breach cost 20-year-old Akber Hasanpour his life and resulted in an exchange that once more laid bare the repressed antagonism between Baku and Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Azerbaijani ambassador day after the incident.

On October 22, a delegation led by Deputy Commander of the Iranian Border Service, Ahmad Garavandi, visited Azerbaijan’s Bilasuvar region to discuss the reasons of the incident.

In the meanwhile, according to Jasur Sumarinli, Head of a “Doctrine” Military Research Centre of Journalists, the two countries have tightened security along all of their its join borders since then.

“In a wake of the recent border incidents, and political tension between the two both Iran and Azerbaijan have involved an enormous amount of troops to their shared borders”, he said during a phone interview from Baku.

A writer’s murder

On November 19, Azeri physician and journalist Rafig Tagi, who had been a persistent critic of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government and of the influence of Iranian clerics on Azeri politics and religious life, was stabbed seven times by unknown assailants.

Tagi survived the attack and while in the hospital gave an interview in which he speculated that he was targeted because of a recent article in which he wrote that President Ahmadinejad was “discrediting Islam through his actions.”

Somewhat mysteriously, as he was recovering from his wounds, Tagi died the day after he gave that interview.

Ayatollah Fazil Lankarani, the cleric who had called on believers to kill Tagi in 2006, has since died, but his son, Mohammad Javad Lankarani, also a cleric, applauded Rafiq Tagi’s murder, praising the killers for “sending the reprobate who insulted the Prophet to hell.”

Many Azeris believe that Iran has killed Tagi in reprisal for his recently published criticisms of the country.

In the meantime, some like Arastun Orujlu, former intelligence officer, a Head of East-West Research Center in Baku, says, Azeri government is “not interested in opening this crime like it didn’t before in case of other critics.”

“I don’t believe that someone from outside could dare to organize Tagi’s murder in daylight, downtown and in front of everyone eyes, this is probably something connected to internal forces here [in Azerbaijan]”, he said in an phone interview.