Against the backdrop of the recent tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, and as part of Iran's attempts to make it known that it has the ability to operate trained ethnic military groups in other countries, media affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) published information about the previously unknown Azeri Shi'ite militia "Hussainiyoun."
On October 11, 2021, Javan Online, which is close to the IRGC, published an interview with the founder of Hussainiyoun, whose members have been fighting in Syria since 2013 in the ranks of the Iran-backed Shi'ite militias there. In the interview, Tawhid Ebrahimi (aka Tawhid Ebrahimi Begli) provided details about the Hussainiyoun movement's establishment and IRGC Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani's role in it, and about the movement's aims and integration into the array of Shi'ite militias operated by Iran in the region, particularly in Syria.
In this context it is worth mentioning statements by Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid, commander of the IRGC's Khatem Al-Anbiya Command, who said on September 25, 2021 that Iran has "regional power" numbering six "armies": Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, an army in Syria, Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (PMU) in Iraq, and Ansar Allah (the Houthis) in Yemen. These armies, he said, would come to Iran's aid in the event that it is attacked.
To view the clip of Gholam Ali Rashid, click here or below:
Javan noted that the Hussainiyoun movement has, along with the Afghanistan-based Fatimiyuon, the Pakistan-based Zeinabiyuon, and the Iraq-based Heidariyoun, been part of Iran's Islamic resistance front in the fighting in Syria. Also according to Javan, Hussainiyoun founder Ebrahim had joined a religious seminary in the Iranian city of Mashhad in northern Iran in 2002 and today lives in Iran.
Ebrahimi said in the interview that senior Iranian officials had not wanted to establish an Azeri militia because of the Iran-Azerbaijan relationship and Iranian interests, but that Qods Force commander Soleimani had paved the way to its formation in 2016. At the same time, it appears that its establishment has been downplayed up to now due to Iranian interests. Ebrahimi said that information about the Hussainiyoun movement's activity in Syria had been published by Azerbaijan authorities after they arrested an Azeri activist but that he had hastened to deny that the activist had been sent by the militia to Syria. At the same time, he stressed that sending Azeris to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria was justified so that they would not have to later fight ISIS in the cities of Azerbaijan.
Also in the interview, Ebrahimi criticized the government of Iranian president Rafsanjani (1989-1997), which he said had prioritized the development of trade and economic relations with Azerbaijan – hinting that Rafsanjani had a personal interest in this as he was the country's biggest exporter of pistachios – instead of focusing on instituting the values of the Islamic revolution and deepening Iran-Azerbaijan cultural ties after the breakup of the USSR. He complained that Iran had left the Azerbaijan arena to being politically and culturally influenced by Turkey, via academia, and to being influenced by Israel via media, making it easier for these countries to shape a new Azerbaijan identity that suited them. He also called on the Iranian regime to reinforce and deepen its inculcation of the ideological and cultural ideas of Iran's Islamic Revolution among the secular Shi'ite population in Azerbaijan in order to bring it closer politically and ideologically to Iran.
The following is the Javan interview with Ebrahimi:
Ebrahimi: Qods Force Commander Soleimani Laughed And Said "It Was Me... Who Chose The Name 'Hussainiyoun'" For Your Movement
Q: "When was the cornerstone for the foundation of the Hussainiyoun group laid?"
A: "In 2013, a group of young Azeri zealots decided to go to Syria and join the [Iranian] Islamic Revolution. I myself initiated this movement. After many consultations, we went to Syria for the first time, in late 2013. This presence [in Syria] continued into subsequent years. One of our aims was to respond to the presence of some Wahhabis [Islamist Sunnis] who went to Syria from Azerbaijan and joined groups like ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra, in addition to [the aim of] strengthening [the Iranian] resistance front.
"We were very regretful that from a largely Shi'ite country like Azerbaijan nearly 1,500 Wahhabis were sent to Syria, but that none of us Shi'ites, who were the majority [in Azerbaijan] joined the Islamic resistance front, while the Wahhabi population in Azerbaijan was much smaller than the Shi'ite population. This prompted us to make an effort, despite the difficulties we faced, and ultimately, with the help of [Qods Force commander] Soleimani, we succeeded in being present at this front. The cornerstone for the foundation of Hussainiyoun was laid with the sending of these youths [by Iran] to the Islamic resistance front [in Syria]."
Q: "Ever since being sent to Syria, the name of your group was Hussainiyoun?"
A: "No, our being sent [to Syria] was a spontaneous move with a limited number of people. Gradually, as the number of visits [to Syria by young Azeris] grew, the number of young people [joining these visits] increased. Between 2015 and 2016, we wondered why we shouldn't have a consolidated movement or group representing the Azeri people [of Azerbaijan].
"At the Islamic resistance front, a group like the [Afghanistan] Fatimayoun, [Pakistani] Zeinabiyoun, and so on were all present, [each with] its own name and flag, but from the Shi'ite state of Azerbaijan there wasn't a single united and organized group. So we decided to establish a movement.
"From the beginning, we decided to consider the cultural issue in addition to the military dimension of the war of the Islamic resistance front [in Syria]. The rest of the large groups focused on military issues, but we focused also, from the outset, on cultural issues, because the root of many of the problems we see in Azerbaijan today is the work of Satan that the Zionists and some of the states in the region are carrying out culturally, socially, and politically."
Q: "How did you choose the name Hussainiyoun for yourselves?"
A: "The choice of this name has an interesting story. The Azerbaijan residents have a motto chanted during the mourning [ceremonies in the month of] Muharram and at other religious events, about 'Azerbaijan is the land of the Hussainis.' This issue led us to choose the name 'Hussainiyoun' for our movement. We designed our flag based on this.
Hussainiyoun movement flag
"But here began a dispute, since some of the members said that we should come quietly to the resistance front [in Syria] and leave quietly. [They thought that] there was no need to establish a group. They meant that because of the Iran-Azerbaijan relationship it was not a good idea to establish such a group with a specific name and flag. But we insisted on doing so. We raised [the matter of establishing] the Hussainiyoun movement among ourselves in 2016, and at a meeting we held with Qassem Soleimani in 2017 the establishment of this group was recognized.
Hussainiyoun movement founder Ebrahimi with Qassem Soleimani. Javan, (Iran, October 11, 2021.
"During that same meeting, I presented several complaints to Hajji [Soleimani], telling him that some of his associates were restricting us also. He was very saddened and out of support for our movement issued orders that paved the way for us. Afterwards he asked if I had made a decision about a name for the group, and I told him we had called it Hussainiyoun. Hajji [Soleimani] laughed and said: 'It was me, not you, who chose the name 'Hussainiyoun!' Then he said: 'A few days ago, we were thinking about what name to choose for you and the name 'Hussainiyoun' came to my mind.'
"It is interesting that with no coordination between us, Qassem [Soleimani] chose this name for us. During this meeting, with Qassem's agreement, our group was [officially] recognized. Later, I heard that after we left the meeting, Hajji [Soleimani] complained to his colleagues [and asked] why they were restricting us. They raised the same issue – Iran's interests in and relations with Azerbaijan. But Hajji did not accept [this] and said: 'From now on no one has the right to restrict these children.' One of the IRGC members posted documentation of this meeting that day [with Soleimani] and [Soleimani's] sadness and complaint [about his colleagues restricting the Hussainiyoun members] on the Sahand media outlet in [the central Iran city of] Tabriz."
"We Are Fighting ISIS [In Syria] Because If We Do Not Fight Them In Syria, Tomorrow We Will Have To Fight ISIS In The Cities Of Azerbaijan"
Q: "In your country were there restrictions on the sending of Hussainiyoun forces to the Islamic front in Syria?"
A: "I can say vehemently that no member of the groups that participated in the Islamic resistance front was subjected to as many restrictions and difficulties as the Hussainiyoun movement. I said that some comrades within wanted to restrict us – not to mention our country, which arrested and imprisoned some Hussainiyoun movement members at various times. This was while some 1,500 Wahhabis were sent freely from Azerbaijan to Syria and fought under Salafi groups. Some Salafis even came to Azerbaijan from other republics in central Asia and went to Syria with passports of our country."
Q: "Did the Hussainiyoun movement give martyrs at the Syrian front?"
A: "[Laughs] Not only did we give martyrs there, the [Hussainiyoun] youths did everything they could and spared no effort. Moreover, I told Qassem [Soleimani] many times: 'Pray that I will be martyred.' Because I am heavy, he teased me, saying 'I have back problems [and you are too heavy] for me to carry your coffin.'"
Q: "How well do the Azerbaijan citizens know the Hussainiyoun movement?"
A: "It was propaganda and the media of the Azerbaijan government that introduced this movement to the citizens of our country. In 2018, there was an incident in the city of Ganja [in Azerbaijan] that led to the arrest of one of the young people from among the defenders of the holy places [in Syria] – an Azeri named Younis Saparaf. Following this incident, the Azerbaijan TV channels launched a negative propaganda campaign about the Hussainiyoun movement, arguing that its forces were fighting ISIS in Syria.
"Many Shi'ites in Azerbaijan hate ISIS. Even Sunnis in Azerbaijan with good relations with the Shi'ites hate ISIS. Our state TV channel's official announcement about the aims of the Hussainiyoun movement's presence in Syria made people aware of the movement's ideological motives and values. I was in Damascus during these incidents [Saparaf's arrest] and when the picture of me as head of the group was released there, I quickly returned to Qom [in Iran] and said in a speech that we are proud of Younis Saparaf but that what he did was spontaneous and he had received no orders from us. Then I explained the reason for the presence of the young people of the Hussainiyoun movement in Syria, and as Baku TV acknowledged, we are fighting ISIS [in Syria] because if we do not fight them in Syria, tomorrow we will have to fight ISIS in the cities of Azerbaijan."
"The First Cultural Activity For Azerbaijan Is To Strengthen The Shi'ites In The Country, Based On The [Islamic] Resistance Model [Of Iran]"
Q: "You mentioned that the Zionists are acting in your country's political and cultural sphere. This issue is expressed also in official statements by elements in our country [Iran]. What is happening there [at the Iran-Azerbaijan border]? How is it that we are hearing voices of resistance to a friendly country, i.e. Iran?"
A: "We must go back 30 years to answer this question. When the USSR broke up, the Azeri people [of Azerbaijan] broke through the border fence and kissed the ground of Iran. But after 200 years under the flag of Czarist Russia, and then [under the rule of] the USSR, we faced an identity gap. Overall, this gap should have been filled by Islamic Iran, that had many points in common [with us] religiously, culturally, historically, and so on. But the Iranian elements at that time and the government of Hashemi Rafsanjani that were in power engaged in exporting pistachios and things like that [to Azerbaijan] instead of carrying out the correct cultural work.
"Later on, this economic outlook did not yield results. Now, just compare the scope of Tehran-Baku trade to the scope of the trade between Baku and Ankara.
"Instead, our state ministries were divided between Russia and America, and universities and academic companies have come under Turkish influence, and the Israelis have taken control of the media. They came and rebuilt an identity for our people, particularly for the younger generation, but [this is in accordance with] their system, and to their benefit. Even if Iran carried out cultural activity, it was limited to sending religious ceremonial objects and the like.
"It is interesting that when the USSR disintegrated, Western experts warned about the [possible] creation of another Islamic Iran in Azerbaijan – because they saw that the common ground between the two nations is so great that it is causing our people to move to the resistance axis [of Iran]. But the inaction on our part in the cultural arena made us miss this historic opportunity. With regard to the 'us,' this does not refer to the cultural institutions within Iran, but also to the religious clerics who preceded us who did little in the area of culture and religion in [largely secular] Azerbaijan.
"If you ask me to define the new generation of the Azeri people with regard to belief, I would say that the Shi'ite religion in this country is like a shallow lake. People [Azerbaijanis] have their own beliefs; they participate in religious rituals of Muharram and so on, but these thoughts and ideas have no depth. In effect, there is no explanation and deepening [in this realm]. If we were to come and build depth, if we were to come and do the correct cultural work, Israel would not have [dared] to come now and infiltrate there and build a base [in Azerbaijan]. On the whole, our people would not have allowed the Zionists, the Wahhabi groups, or the Salafis to come and settle there [in Azerbaijan]."
Q. "You have also given the Hussainiyoun movement a dominant cultural image. What do you think should be done so that some of the streams cannot create a dispute between the two nations of Iran and Azerbaijan?"
A: "In the early 1990s, the master [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei] said in a speech that 'regarding countries such as Azerbaijan, we must not talk only about matters of shari'a such as the way of handwashing for prayer, [how] to pray, and similar matters, and say that we have conducted cultural activity. They [the Azerbaijanis] can go and learn these things on their own. A smart plan must be drawn up for them.' What defines such a smart plan? This means that cultural activity must be carried out in such a way that our people will be able to respond appropriately in any situation that arises, and not be harmed by the plans and schemes of the enemies. In my view, the first cultural activity for Azerbaijan is to strengthen the Shi'ites in the country, based on the [Islamic] resistance model [of Iran].
"Rest assured that we will be able to thwart their 30-year plot within a few years if in-depth work is done, if the strengthening and reconstruction of the [Azerbaijan] identity is carried out properly, if the deepening and building of the deterrent force is carried out properly, and if the popular diplomacy of the Islamic ummah between Iran and the people of Azerbaijan is intensified."
 See also MEMRI JTTM report Al-Arabiya Report: Iran May Use Its Proxy 'Azerbaijani Islamic Resistance Movement – Hussainiyoun' To Act Against Azerbaijan And Israeli Interests In The Country, October 13, 2021.
 Javanonline, October 11, 2021.