The Farda Briefing: Embassy Attack Further Strains Relations Between Iran And Azerbaijan
Welcome back to The Farda Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. To subscribe, click here.
I'm RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I've been following during the past week and what I'm watching for in the days ahead.
The Big Issue
A gunman stormed the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran on January 27, killing one guard and wounding two others. Iran said the attack was motivated by personal reasons, but Baku described it as a “terrorist attack.”
The incident led Azerbaijan to temporarily suspend its operations at its embassy in Tehran and evacuate its staff from the country. Iranian media said the attacker, who was arrested, was an Iranian man married to an Azerbaijani woman. The attacker was quoted as saying that his wife disappeared after entering the Azerbaijani Embassy.
Why It Matters: The incident has further strained relations between the neighbors, who have a history of tensions. Azerbaijan has long been suspicious of Iran’s ties with Armenia, Baku’s archenemy. Meanwhile, Tehran has increasingly expressed concern about Azerbaijan’s deepening relations with Israel, Tehran’s regional foe. Earlier this month, Baku appointed its first-ever ambassador to Israel, which is a major arms supplier to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has also long complained of Iran’s alleged mistreatment of its sizable ethnic Azeri minority. Tehran has accused Baku of fomenting separatist sentiment in the Islamic republic.
Analyst Habib Hosseinifard told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that the embassy attack has led to an “overflow” of tensions.
“Iran claims some of Israel’s actions against the country are organized from inside Azerbaijan. In addition, Iran also accuses Azerbaijan of inciting the country’s Azeri minority, while Baku accuses Tehran of strengthening extremist Shi’ite groups inside Azerbaijan. All of these have increased tensions, particularly in the past two years,” he said.
What's Next: Since the embassy attack, Iran has attempted to ease tensions with Azerbaijan. But Baku appears to have upped the ante by announcing on January 31 the arrests of what it said were seven members of an Iranian spy network in Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov said in a January 31 statement that “suspension of a diplomatic mission’s operations in any country is a serious matter" and that Baku has let Tehran know that "we do not trust Iran with respect to ensuring the security of our embassy’s employees.”
The statement came days after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in a phone call that “the governments of Iran and Azerbaijan will not allow bilateral relations to be affected by the suggestions of those who wish ill on the two nations,” according to the Iranian government’s website.
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What We're Watching
A group of Iranian lawmakers have submitted a draft bill to curb “unprofessional comments” posted on social media by influential figures, including celebrities. The proposed legislation prescribes prison terms of up to 15 years and fines for those found guilty. Supporters of the draft bill have said it will punish those who undermine national security. But critics have labeled it the “suffocation bill.”
What's Next: The proposed legislation is an attempt by the authorities to further crack down on dissent amid ongoing anti-regime protests that have rocked the country since September. The demonstrations are the biggest threat to the clerical regime in years.
The antiestablishment protests have attracted support from all corners of Iranian society, including celebrities. Several well-known figures have been summoned or arrested in recent months by police after showing support for the demonstrations.
Until next time,
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