Washington can be referred to as the world capital of think tanks. Policymakers from around the globe convene with the goal of researching and advocating for policy initiatives. Among a wide range of focus areas, many organizations deal with studying Iran and its malicious activity.
Most of them closely follow and document Iranian activity in the Middle East, as well as lobbying and information activities regarding the Iranian regime in the European Union and the United States. Yet while Iranian activity in Syria, Iraq and the Gulf region gets most of the attention, there is little to no focus related to Iranian activity in the South Caucasus, particularly malicious information activity.
Just about 10 years ago, there were hearings in Washington brought on by the Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, a part of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, this did not lead to a notable increase in attention towards the South Caucasus in subsequent years. Although the South Caucasus has always been an important region due to its location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, its importance—both in terms of logistics and in terms of ensuring Europe’s energy security—has increased drastically since the onset of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. At the same time, Iran has been using the region to further its agenda for quite some time now; in particular, to deliver weapons to Russia for use in the bloody war in Ukraine.
Practically all Iranian activity in the region is accompanied by a propaganda smokescreen, and Tehran uses a chorus of local useful idiots to spread and promote its narratives, as well as to attack opponents.
Tehran began to worry about its influence in the region after the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, when, according to the Iranian regime, there emerged a threat of “closure of the northern route for Iran,” which has been actively used for quite some time now by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the regime in general for questionable purposes.
Although there haven’t been any threats or developments threatening the closure of this route, the Iranian regime lives in its own reality. Iran’s fears—and to a greater extent, its ambitions—have prompted it to intensify its “active measures” in the South Caucasus. Iran’s extensive network that it had been building up in the region for years following the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse became hyperactive in the last few years. It is clear that Iran had more than enough time to create both an information infrastructure and a network of agents of influence. Azerbaijan was an obvious primary target, as it is the second country in the world after Iran with a predominantly Shi’ite population.
In addition, the Iranian special services launched vigorous activities in areas with settlements containing a high concentration of Shi’ite Azerbaijanis in the South Caucasus, such as Borchali in the southeastern part of Georgia and southern Dagestan. Considering the significant resistance to Iranian information and intelligence activity in Azerbaijan, Tehran uses the aforementioned locations where it can operate with relative impunity. These locations act as a kind of launchpad for carrying out malicious information operations in the region.
Moreover, this activity is not only limited to the Caucasus. In 2018, I touched upon Iran’s activity in Georgia and the associated risks that this presented for both the region and the European Union. The fact that the Iranian special services began to use the Azerbaijanis they recruited for their own operational purposes is a clear demonstration of how Iran intends on leveraging their influence. It should also not be forgotten that Georgia, along with Azerbaijan, is crucial in the delivery of energy resources from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia to Europe, Turkey and even Israel.
One of the most critical elements of Iranian information operations in the South Caucasus is the Sahar propaganda TV channel broadcasting in the Azerbaijani language. Azerbaijani is the primary language employed by Iranian propaganda and disinformation aiming at the South Caucasus and the millions of people from the region living in Russia. Countless numbers of websites, Telegram and YouTube channels, Twitter and Instagram accounts, Facebook pages and large volumes of print literature all promote Iranian anti-Semitic, anti-America and sometimes anti-Turkish narratives 24/7 in Azerbaijani.
For quite some time now, Iranian propaganda has dedicated much of its attention to criticizing and even outright insulting the Azerbaijani leadership, accompanied by messages and videos with military and terrorist threats against Azerbaijan. The apogee of the informational and ideological confrontation was an attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran on Jan. 27. As a result, the Azerbaijani head of the security service was killed, and two more people were injured. After this attack, the embassy suspended its operation. The attack on the embassy was followed by a sharp surge of information activity from Iran and its proxies in the South Caucasus. In less than two months, there was an attempt on the life of an Azerbaijani Parliament member, Fazil Mustafa, who is known as an outspoken critic of Iran. Around the same time, the Azerbaijani intelligence services arrested a group of Iranian agents that were citizens of Azerbaijan; they had performed various assignments given to them by their Iranian handlers. It is noteworthy that almost all of them were active users of pro-Iranian radical telegram channels, and some had created and managed pro-Iranian Telegram channels on the orders of the Iranian special services as part of “Information Jihad” declared by Khamenei.
An uptick in malignant Iranian activity in the South Caucasus region is occurring right now. Its position at a crossroads—sandwiched between Iran and Russia—makes this region an attractive target for information warfare. Its geopolitical importance, along with its critical supply of oil and gas, means that changes in favor of Iran would not only threaten the stability of the region but also Europe and the rest of the world.
Ali Hajizade is a Middle East and information-warfare analyst.