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The Farda Briefing: Embassy Attack Further Strains Relations Between Iran And Azerbaijan

People gather around the coffin of Orkhan Askerov, a security guard at Azerbaijan's embassy in Iran who was shot dead by a gunman, during a procession in Baku on January 30.
People gather around the coffin of Orkhan Askerov, a security guard at Azerbaijan's embassy in Iran who was shot dead by a gunman, during a procession in Baku on January 30.

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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Meghdad Jebelli, the brother of Iran's state TV chief Peyman Jebelli, spoke to Radio Farda about his decision to leave Iran and seek asylum in Canada. Meghdad Jebelli left his homeland soon after Iran's downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed all 176 people onboard, including his 29-year-old nephew. Jebelli said "real justice will only be achieved when the perpetrators of the crimes of the past 44 years are punished,” in reference to the clerical regime that came to power following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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,

Golnaz Esfandiari

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

About This Newsletter

The Farda Briefing

The Farda Briefing is an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. Written by senior correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari and other reporters from Radio Farda.

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