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On October 3, 2021, the Saudi Al-Arabiya website published a report on the Azerbaijani Islamic Resistance Movement – Hussainiyoun. The movement, headed by Tawhid Ibrahim Begli, a fierce opponent of the regime in Azerbaijan who has links to the Iranian regime, was, according to the report, founded by the late IRGC Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani as part of the array of Shi'ite militias established by Iran in recent years in countries across the region in the Iranian regime's efforts to export its revolution and in order to gain control in these countries.
The report, which states that it is based primarily on reports in the Azeri media, argues that Iran is likely to use the movement to destabilize the Azeri regime and damage Israeli interests in that country. These claims in the report come against the backdrop of the recent crisis in Iran-Azerbaijan relations following the latter's insistence, with Turkey's support, on the creation of a land corridor through Armenian territory (see green arrow in lower center of the map below) connecting the Azeri enclave of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with Azerbaijan. The creation of this transport corridor – known as the Zangezur Corridor – is due to Armenia's defeat by Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Iran, which as a result of Azerbaijan's victory lost its direct land access to its ally Armenia and its control of this important transit route for commerce and smuggling, opposed these changes, which it called border changes in the South Caucasus, and issued a number of declarations calling it illegal.
The region following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, showing the Nagorno-Karabakh territory (dark green) taken by Azerbaijan during the war. The green arrow indicates the Zangezur Corridor. Map courtesy of CIA Fact Book, "Azerbaijan."
In response to Azerbaijan's establishment of roadblocks for security checks and tax collection on its border for all trucks coming from Iran, Iran conducted two surprise military exercises, dubbed "Conquerors of Khaybar," near the border. Iran also dispatched its foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, to Russia in an effort to obtain political support for its anti-Azerbaijan position.
In declarations, Iran is claiming that Azerbaijan is allowing an Israeli military presence on its territory, that this endangers Iran's security, and that it will not tolerate this presence. Iranian political analyst Hassan Hanizadeh, who is close to the IRGC, has hinted that Iran could use the Azeri, Shi'ite and Kurdish ethnic groups against Azerbaijan. One of these groups is apparently the Hussainiyoun Movement.
The Al-Arabiya report stresses the potential threat posed by the Hussainiyoun Movement to Azerbaijan and the region, stating that while some believe it is just a small group, "experience in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria has shown that every militia started out as a small group, and gradually organizational infrastructure was created, which when needed could be developed into an entire organization with fighting units and a political arm – and this is how Hizbullah was established in Lebanon." It posits that the group could have been created to influence Azeri popular opinion with the aim of undermining the government from within if Azerbaijan-Iran relations further soured, and for it to act against the Israeli presence in the country.
It also stated that "IRGC-operated social media accounts are circulating posts stating that the Hussainiyoun Movement is threatening the Israeli Embassy in Baku" and that the group would likely work for Iranian interests among Azeri Shi'ite communities in Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe.
This report will summarize the Al-Arabiya report on the emergence and development of the Hussainiyoun Movement, and will also review an earlier report published by an Azeri-language Shi'ite website that confirmed details of the Al-Arabiya report.
The Emergence And Development Of The Azerbaijani Islamic Resistance Movement – Hussainiyoun
According to the Al-Arabiya report, Tawhid Ibrahim Begli, the Hussainiyoun Movement's leader, is a fierce opponent of the Azeri government and has connections to the Iranian regime. His family was originally from the Azeri city of Lankaran, on the shore of the Caspian Sea, about 32 kilometers north of the Iranian border, and later moved to the eastern Iran city of Mashhad.
The report stated that in early 2016 Begli created a "Hussainiyoun Brigade" with a group of 14 Azeris who had studied at religious institutions in Qom and Mashhad. Its aim, he said, would be to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Following "only one day of training," this group of 14 students went to Syria with Begli and joined an Iranian military unit near Damascus. Upon their arrival in Syria, Begli announced his intention for the group to carry out military operations in Azerbaijan. However, according to the report, some members of the group fought alongside Azeri government forces in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
It was Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani, according to the report, who gave the group the name Islamic Resistance Movement – Hussainiyoun, which is similar to the names of other Iran-backed Shi'ite militias. The Hussainiyoun emblem and flag are also similar to those of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Iraq's Hizbullah Brigades.
Left, emblem of the 'Azerbaijani Islamic Resistance Movement – Hussainiyoun; right, Hizbullah flag.
Begli, said the report, also works with the Azeri community in Iran to try to establish his status in the Iranian regime. According to the Al-Arabiya report, on the margins of an annual World Assembly of Islamic Awakening conference in Iran he met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and discussed the situation of the Muslim prisoners in Azeri prisons. The report did not, however, note what year this took place.
In 2020, according to the report, Hussainiyoun members met with Soleimani in Kerman, Iran, and the following year Begli sent a letter of congratulations to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi following his election.
Hussainiyoun Movement flag on the grave of Qasem Soleimani (Source: Telegram.me/Soleimani_Qasem, October 5, 2021)
Earlier Statements By Qods Force Deputy Commander Confirm Details In Al-Arabiya Report
A report published earlier, on January 6, 2021, by an Azeri-language pro-Iran Shi'ite website confirmed details of the Al-Arabiya report. It quoted Gen. Mohammad Reza Asadbeygi, Qasem Soleimani's deputy in the Caucasus who was also in Syria, in an interview on an Iranian Azeri-language TV channel. In the interview, Asadbeygi said that the Hussainiyoun Movement had been one of the Shi'ite groups participating in the fighting in Syria, and that the group included Azeri Shi'ites and Shi'ite Azeri speakers from Russia, Caucasus states, Turkey, and "even European countries." He stressed that "although the group was not very large, it managed to establish a presence in Syria" and to impact the situation on the ground and play a positive role. A media blackout on its presence in Syria had been imposed by Iran, he said, "in order to preserve [the group's] security."
Asadbeygi said that Soleimani had met with the group in Syria and had been very pleased with its activity. He added that as an Iranian representative, he had forbidden the addition of more fighters to the group and had refrained from sending these fighters to the front because "if they remain in Syria for a long time, they might be a security problem." Soleimani had been enraged by this and told him that he had no right to prevent this and ordered Asadbeygi to help them.
The Azeri-language report included photos of Begli with Soleimani.
Soleimani with Begli (Source: Ar-rad.org, January 6, 2021)