Propaganda as the tool of Iran’s western influence, and its impact on Azerbaijan

By | Rachel Brooks

March 9, 2021 

Above image credit: “View over Khudaferin – Destroyed and Ethnically-Cleansed Azari Village – Azerbaijan – Viewed from Across Aras River Frontier – Iranian Azerbaijan – Iran – 01” by Adam Jones, Ph.D. – Global Photo Archive is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.This is the scene along the Aras River where years of Soviet domination pulverized the Azerbaijani territory that was once connected with Iran. This region was embroiled in a recent media controversy with the Iranian political arm. See below for details. 

This week, Foreign Policy ‘, in a piece penned by Vali R. Nasr, a professor of Majid Khadduri college, analyzed that the conflict trajectory of the Middle East had shifted away from Arab states. Rather, the outlet painted a trifecta of conflict that included Turkey, Iran, and Israel. The outlet stated that “the Arab moment had passed”and that a struggle between these powers would shape the region’s future. The analysis stated that Arab states have been sliding into “paralysis” and “chaos” since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

This analysis rings with a western rhetoric that has been held under the influence of Iran’s political ideologies recycled in the western media. Local recollection of current events in the Gulf States showcase a different story. 

Western-Islamist rhetoric has echoed a negative narrative regarding the changing though in the Gulf.

Al Jazeera goes after Gulf association of Jewish communities

Arab internal politics are undergoing a rebirth of influence 

This analysis was incomplete in assuming that Arab States are losing their relevance. A significant political renaissance within the Gulf States suggests that rather than lose relevance, the Arab States will instead shift to more pro-western models of governance. For this reason, if one is to analyze the Arab influence in this drawing of lines of future regional conflict, one would need to place the Arab states on the side of a more meditative influence. Arab States may back western or Israeli positions in a future power struggle with Iran and Turkey.

The Gulf Jewish communities respond to this rhetoric with more insight on life inside the changing Gulf. 

Rabbi Abadie’s response to critics, high hopes for Gulf Jewish communities

The power of propaganda in Iran’s foreign reach 

 Yet, even this analysis is an incomplete picture of the stress dynamics between the powers of the region, given the insular influence that Iran has in western and Arab states. Iran, uses the power of the propaganda press to intimidate and misconstrue the western ideation of its outreach. 

Phillip Smyth, a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute, and expert on Islamist Shi’a militias, noted that Iran via Hezbollah has a traceable influence in the west. 

“Shia militia groups that are controlled by the Iranians, and this goes for Hezbollah in particular but includes other Iraqi groups, do have limited support in the west,”said Smyth. Hezbollah, while being an Iranian controlled Shia militia, is headquartered out of Lebanon and operates within the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.

 The presence of Hezbollah in their nations is motivation to engage the Arab states to be a proactive influence in the future development of dealing with Iranian threats,  as they become more modernized and more western friendly under recent political internal developments. 

Smyth then underlined the presence of Iranian-linked groups in the militia and their use of propaganda tactics. 

“I don’t want to overstate their capabilities in the U.S., because luckily we do have very good domestic intelligence on the ground that helps to disrupt a lot of these threats,” said Smyth. 

“But that doesn’t mean that all of these threats are minor issues, and I think some of it ties down to how the Iranians try to demonstrate that they have a nice global reach. You’ll see some propaganda, as they’ve done this before, where they hint at having some capacity within the Americas.”

“Now, going off of that, I guess it needs some level of understanding that a lot of these groups, it’s not as if they are, as of now, capable of pulling off something to the level of the AMIA bombing or other activities,” he then listed a series of other terror-linked activities, such as the bombing outside the Israeli embassy in London on July 26, 1994. He noted that time had made things such as the above listed events a bit more difficult for these militias.  Yet, while things may be more difficult for these actors at the moment, it does not make the presence of IRGC actors in the west completely muted. Rather, their power does not come from direct use of force, but rather through the capacity that they have in manipulating narratives regarding Iran in their propaganda arm. 

“That doesn’t necessitate that the issue isn’t there. I do think we are seeing a good level of propaganda from these guys,” he added, noting that they were trying to use propaganda to create the image that Iran had the ability to strike out against the U.S. in the same way that the U.S. had struck out in recent history against the IRGC regime, most notably with the assassination of Qassem Solemaini. 

Foreign Policy’s analysis highlights the influence of Iranian rhetoric over western Azerbaijan narratives

The Foreign Policy analysis painted a scenario where Iran, Turkey, and Israel played a realpolitik game that pressured the Islamist actors of the Gulf States to join in alliance with Iran and Turkey. In this analysis, the author drew a comparison between Israel’s relations with the Saudi-Emriati power, and stated the belief that, if Islamism-dominated actors such as Oman or Qatar felt threatened by this position they would seek protection from Turkey’s ambition.


 The analysis stated that Turkey was embracing its Islamic past, and increasing the ambitions of its Ottoman era political structure. The author stated that the trifecta between Iran, Turkey, and Iran was to be looked at as a possible disrupter of post-World War II order. 

The analysis then latched upon a talking point that has been one of controversy in the western media, and has been inflamed with disinformation. The author spoke about the Turkish influence over the conflict in the Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The analysis drew direct comparisons between the Turkish stance in the Azerbaijani stake of the Caucasus conflict as “Turkish expansionism.” 

Western rhetoric concerning Turkish-Azerbaijani relations flawed  

This analysis is flawed in the sense that it emphasizes a western rhetoric concerning the Turkish influence over the Azerbaijani conflict’s upper hand. Azerbaijan’s forces did not require the bolstering of the Turkish military in the sense that the western rhetoric has implied largely because the forces were superior to the Armenian militia at the time the 2020 conflict episode erupted.  The Karabakh conflict was a territorial dispute of the post-Soviet politics, a motion of the national movement within Armenia to seize opportunity under Gorbachev and take the mountain enclave territory as part of its own borders. The conflict’s pause was mitigated by the Russian government, and saw the presence of Russian and Turkish peacekeepers in the region. 

The author then cited a poem read by Turkish leader Recep Tayipp Erdoğan that lamented the breakup of ancient Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s ancient borders extended into what is now Tabriz, Iran, in a region referred to commonly by the Azerbaijani who live in the area as “Southern Azerbaijan.” The reading of the poem had ignited ire among Iran’s political ruling power, because the poem recalls the division of ethnic Azerbaijani at the Aras River. The Aras River, site of the Khudaferin bridge, was once open for commercial and military purposes between the Azerbaijani of the north and south. During the reign of the Soviet Union, and the Armenian occupation of the region during the 27-year-long  post-Soviet conflict episodes, fencing similar to the wall of Berlin was erected in this region. 

Leyla Sarabi’s broadcast showcases how the Khudaferin fell into disrepair during the war. 

Leyla Sarabi reports from the Khudaferin bridge

“They separated the Aras River and filled it with rocks and rods. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly,” said the poem, as it was quoted by Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is a Qatari-government owned outlet that frequently sympathizes with Iranian narratives. Al Jazeera’s recount of Erodgan’s poem reading drew comparisons not to the significance of the building of a wall by Soviet occupation, but to the conclusion of the Russio-Persian war of the 19th century which led to the signing of the Treaty of Turkmenchay. 

The Iranian political arm lashed out at Erdogan over the poem’s reading, politicizing it as an “undermining of the sovereignty of Azerbaijan”. 

“Pres. Erdogan was not informed that what he ill-recited in Baku refers to the forcible separation of areas north of Aras from Iranian motherland,” tweeted Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran. 

“Didn’t he realize that he was undermining the sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan? NO ONE can talk about OUR beloved Azerbaijan.” 

The western world that is not so familiar with the Soviet presence or history of the Karabakh conflict was influenced by this public rhetoric between the western press and the Iranian politicians. One must, however, understand Iran’s history with Azerbaijan itself. During the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and in the years to immediately follow this, the Azerbaijani population of Iran resisted the adoption of an ayatollah, and the politics of Khomeini’s Islamism. To date, Azerbaijan continues to be the only fully secular Muslim republic. 

The personal account of a Southern Azerbaijani who witnessed the Islamic revolution illustrates.  

The Azerbaijani Independence Fight: Part I- A Revolution in Tabriz

Iran, by contrast, has developed a political chauvinism power in which the Persian political elite has domination over the Iranian Azerbaijani population. This has been reported by the Azerbaijani activists within Iran. This is effectively apartheid as the Persian population is actually less than the the Azerbaijani population in Iran, rather than the western apparent rhetoric that Azerbaijani are a minority within the Islamic Republic (though the Iranian officials  disputes this data). The inference then, that Iran, once dominated by the Turkic influence over Tabriz, was wrongfully divided from the Turkic half of its roots, was a direct undermining of the IRGC persified authority, and not so much the undermining of Azerbaijan’s state sovereignty. 

The Azerbaijani response to the Iranian Foreign Minister’s statement likewise emphasized the political rhetoric as tailor-made to influence western audiences and not to express solidarity for Azerbaijan’s inferred offense. Tweeted responses called for Iran to stay out of Azerbaijan’s land, and to cease covert support of Armenia. Others called out the Iranian government for their abuse of the Southern Azerbaijani population in their midst. 

Iran’s shadow threat uses media and social media to its advantage 

Smyth noted that social media is itself a powerful tool of the Iranian propaganda arm in the western world. Reports circulated in the western press that Iran had formed a Shia militia cell in Washington. Smyth stated that this was propped up by claims made on social media. He noted that Iran frequently enforces the appearance that it can reach anyone anywhere, a tactic that is used to intimidate expatriates of the Islamic Republic. He noted that, while a cell may exist within Washington, he would be “cautious” as to how effective such a cell could be in the short time frame that it was alleged to have developed.

 Rather, he noted that the current political agenda of Iran toward the west may be to see if the policies under Biden may be different than his immediate predecessor presidents. 

This means that this propaganda can also color the Western perception of seemingly unrelated other conflicts, tensions, and geopolitical hotspots in which Iran has a stake.