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The Iranian regional policy pay a remarkable attention to the countries of Central Asia and Tehran has consistently monitored the situation in the republics of the former Soviet states. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tehran revealed a special interest in the areas of Muslim majority, namely Central Asian countries and the Caucasus. Actually, Iran was feeling good in its communication with them as the Union of the Soviet – the principal enemy – no longer exists, and modern Russia wasn’t strong as before and thus didn’t have the same keys to dominate the region the same way it used to.
For the sake of its strategic interests, Iran has intensified its work in the countries of Central Asia and South Caucasus in the past few years and has sought to spread its influence in the first place in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in addition to other countries was affiliated to the dissolved soviet Union. Indeed, analyzing the situation in Central Asia and South Caucasus while taking into account the potential threat to Iran’s national security allows us to identify the basic trends of the regional activities of the secret services of Iran today and also to define the following Iranian priorities in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
One of the main tasks of Iranian intelligence operations is to collect information about the potential use of the territories of the above mentioned countries of this region in the US military and intelligence and in the propaganda launched against Iran, as the possibility of an additional penetration of the United States in the Central Asia region under the pretext of combating terrorism, is a source of special concern to the Iranian leadership especially since Iran has interpreted many of the reports issued by the CIA that it stated that most of the ISIS militants have returned to Afghanistan after their defeat in Iraq in December 2017, as part of a new US policy aimed at containing Iran from behind. Iranian intelligence gives priority for regional contacts for the US in the political and military fields, especially trips to the countries of the region by representatives of the Pentagon and the CIA. According to Iranian intelligence services, the United States is not limited to setting up military bases on the territories of the Central Asian republics; Washington will not be limited in this framework. Good example of this is the intelligence cooperation between Pakistan and the United States which Iran believes that such intelligence cooperation inflicted grave damage to Iran’s national interests in the region.
Today, some counter-espionage agencies in Central Asia and the Caucasus are paying increasing attention to the activities of Iranian intelligence personnel, who work in the countries of the region under the guise of embassies and commercial, economic and cultural tasks. In parallel, cases of representatives of Iranian commercial companies showed a special interest in strategic and military facilities that has nothing to do with their professional activities, and this is evident from the Iranians ’movements there and sometimes from the photographic and video equipment used near important strategic institutions (for example, near the US military base” Manas “in Kyrgyzstan), as well as the topics of their conversations with various officials, representatives of private sector companies and departments and journalists of the region.
Counter – intelligence in Azerbaijan
In Azerbaijan, the main task of Iranian intelligence is to prevent the use of Azerbaijani lands in military operations against Iran, whether by the United States or Israel, and for this purpose many activities are carried out, including influencing public opinion through the media, along with Iranian assertion on the danger posed by the fanatic Islamic elements such as ISIS and others supported by American intelligence, in addition to other assumptions that Iranian intelligence propagates there. All of this depends on the likelihood of a future military confrontation between the United States and Iran, and the willingness of the Azerbaijani authorities to provide assistance to the United States.
Moreover, Iranian intelligence circles pay close attention to Iranian political immigrants living in Azerbaijan and their relations with their comrades from the Turkish tribes in their motherland, as well as with representatives of the US and Azerbaijani intelligence services. It is known that northern Iran and neighboring Azerbaijan form an ethnic area, of one culture, the historical region of the settlement of Azerbaijani ethnos (30 million of its representatives live in Iran and 8 million live in the Republic of Azerbaijan), and since the beginning of the 1990s, Baku Alanya- and since the middle of the last decade – behind the scenes, sponsoring the separatist movement of Iranian Azerbaijanis. Actually,the joint borders that link between these two countries, the resettlement of representatives of one nation on both sides, as well as the traditional friction between Baku and Tehran, creates favorable conditions for the use of the “map of Azerbaijan” in order to destabilize the situation in Iran.
Iran actively sought to overthrow the secular regime in Azerbaijan as part of the policy of exporting the Islamic revolution
Nowadays, Iran, which put the slogan of “exporting the Islamic revolution” into practice since 1979, is making active efforts to achieve the overthrow of the secular regime in Azerbaijan and the establishment of Sharia laws in this country, and in order to establish a theocratic regime in Baku, the Revolutionary Guard Intelligence Service carries out the primary task within this framework by achieving various breakthroughs in the Azerbaijani interior.
The Azerbaijani intelligence believes that one of the primary activities of the Revolutionary Guard is to undermine the stability of the Islamic republics in the former Soviet Union, as Iranian special intelligence services have established powerful and manifold agents in Azerbaijan, who are not only able to extract the necessary military, political and economic information, but also to take various active measures. This was confirmed by former employee of the Ministry of National Security of Azerbaijan Ilham Ismail, as he put it, the Iranian Special Services had already deployed a large network of agents in Azerbaijan in 1993, and they could carry out provocations in Baku at any time.
Virtually, all Iranian intelligence personnel who were arrested by the Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security were involved in espionage operations or preparation for terrorist acts, sabotage and attempts to destabilize the situation in the immediate vicinity of Baku, the capital, as the village of Nardaran is located in the vicinity of the capital, which is traditionally considered as a fortress for the Islamic opposition and has good relations with Iran. In the summer of 2002, there were armed clashes between elements of the Islamic opposition and law enforcement forces, where the leaders of the Islamic opposition were accused of collaborating with Iranian intelligence to work inside Azerbaijan.
Intelligence coordination with Armenia
The closest relations to Iran in the South Caucasus arise between Iran and Armenia. It is considered one of the few strategic partners of the Islamic Republic in the South Caucasus, and in this context Turkey and Azerbaijan are the countries who fearfully monitor the rapprochement and diplomatic relations between Iran and Armenia, as Turkey is lining up with Azerbaijan in Its crisis with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region, while Iran, in addition to Russia, is lining up with Armenia who considers the two sides as strategic allies, especially since Moscow provides all military equipment to Armenia, which raises the concern of Azerbaijan who stands sure about the size of Russia and Iran as international powers. As we indicated above, Azerbaijan did not stand idly by in front of the political and diplomatic developments in relations between Tehran and Yerevan, so it began to search for ways to avenge the continued Iranian support for its rival. It began to approach Israel, which is the archenemy of Iran. Some reports revealed that the National Council of Azerbaijan threatened to divide Iran into 5 countries, during the meeting of the “National Council of the Azerbaijani Republic”, which was supported by Speaker of Azerbaijani Parliament Oktay Asadov.
There is great intelligence cooperation between Tehran and Yerevan, and Colonel Bijan Khashami has been entrusted with the tasks of coordinating information exchange services and sending spies to enemy territory
As the Iranians repeatedly reiterate that Armenia is a strategic ally of Tehran and that the relations between both countries are an example of friendly relations between Islamic and Christian countries in one region, in 2008, Tehran and Yerevan began full cooperation in intelligence services, especially those related to Azerbaijan, in addition to exchanging intelligence information and hosting intelligence agents / sending them to enemy’s territory. Within this framework, the Military Intelligence organizes the strengthening of security cooperation and this task has been entrusted mainly to the military attaché of the Islamic Republic in Yerevan, Colonel Bijan Khashami. In parallel with this, representatives of the Iranian intelligence services cooperate closely With their Armenian counterparts in the information concerning Israel.
In this context, Iran also depends, in its intelligence coordination with Armenia, on the exploitation of Armenian groups in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, to achieve its intelligence goals, as there are approximately 2,500 Armenians living in Israel, and Iran has a strong influence over the Armenians in Bethlehem and other cities. The only exception in the face of these distinguished relations is the relationship between the Iranian and Armenian lobby in the US, as the Armenian lobby enjoys very strong relations with the Israeli lobby there.
Nevertheless, it cannot be said that Iran’s relations with Armenia are pure, as Iran exerts constant political and diplomatic pressure on Armenia with regard to its relations with the West, mainly with the United States and Israel, while the Iranians, who understand the necessity of Armenia’s relations with the United States believes that these relationships must be limited.
Based on this, in Armenia, Iran’s main task is to prevent it from being redirected to the West, and this mission can be accomplished by intensifying contacts with the media and local politicians and by strengthening the pro-Iran lobby in business and military circles there. In parallel with the secret security services in Tehran, activities and visits to the republic of Armenian expatriate representatives from the United States and Western Europe. It is no coincidence that Iran is reasonably afraid if the United States will exploit this situation by ensuring the assistance and support of Armenian economists in the Nagorno-Karabakh case, which means that the US can try to win them on its side. Indeed, Tehran’s fears were strengthened by the information related to activating relations with a number of influential representatives of the Armenian diaspora in the United States and by those calling for the re-directing of Yerevan to Washington in the recent period.
Based on what mentioned above, the nature of the intelligence services that Iran carries out in both Azerbaijan and Armenia witnessed a great variation according to the nature of the relations that bind Iran to these two countries. While the Iranian role in Azerbaijan dominated the nature of combating intelligence and gathering information, we find that this role was dominated by coordination and cooperation in Armenia, and that is why the political decision-maker in Iran views intelligence work in Central Asia and the Caucasus in a different way, according to the risks surrounding Iranian national security, the degrees of threat and danger that Iran senses, according to the existing relations and interactions with other actors.