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Azerbaijan as an Arena for Iranian and Hezbollah Terrorism and Subversion

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Analysis of the Iranian and Hezbollah Terrorist Attacks against Israeli Targets Abroad: The Situation on the Ground and Background Information by The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, full version, febr. 15, 2012. This article is published in four parts, due to its length. For more, please visit ITIC.

Background

Azerbaijan is a relatively young country, established on October 18, 1991. It has about eight million residents, most of whom define themselves as Muslims. Seventy percent of the residents are Shi’ite Muslims (the country’s Shi’ite population is second only to Iran); the rest are Sunnis. In Iran, a substantial Azeri minority represents nearly 25% of the population. The Azeris in Iran live mostly in the country’s north, referred to as South Azerbaijan (shalom-magazine.com).

Iran was one of the first countries to establish full diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan after Azeri independence was declared. In December 1991, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where he signed political, economic and cultural cooperation treaties. On January 4, 1992, Iran upgraded its relations with Azerbaijan to full diplomatic representation. With regard to economy, the two countries have well-established relations with an annual trade volume of around $500 million a year (Iran is one of the largest exporters of Azeri natural gas).

However, there are profound political differences of opinion between the two countries: Azerbaijan, despite its being a Shi’ite Muslim country, has a strong pro-Western orientation and, to Iran’s dissatisfaction, maintains good relations with Israel. In addition, Azerbaijan is a secular country with a clear separation of religion and state. Examples of Azerbaijan’s pro-Western orientation include sending troops to fight with American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, and opening the Azerbaijani air space to American planes flying to Afghanistan (shalom-magazine.com). Those fundamental differences have often created tensions between the two countries and influenced their political relations, which have experienced ups and downs.

Overview

Azerbaijan’s geographical and social characteristics make it a convenient target for Iranian terrorist activity and subversion. The two countries share a 618-km (386-mile) border, making it fairly easy for Iran to infiltrate terrorists and weapons into Azerbaijan. The religious and cultural relations between the Shi’ite populations and the close family bonds between Azeris on both sides of the border also facilitate Iran’s subversive activities.

Iran’s terrorist activity and subversion in Azerbaijan are reflected in the following:

1) Terrorist attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets carried out by recruited Azeri operatives or through Lebanese Hezbollah.

2) Political subversion directed against the Azeri regime through providing assistance to radical Islamic organizations and separatist groups.

3) Exporting the ideology of the Iranian Islamic revolution to Azerbaijan through cultural institutions, mosques and charitable societies.

4) Encouraging criminal economic activities in the territory of Azerbaijan with the purpose of making profits for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and bypassing the sanctions imposed on Iran.

Foiled Terrorist Attacks against Israeli and Jewish Targets

Overview

In the past three years Azerbaijan has been used twice by Iran and Hezbollah to carry out terrorist attacks in retaliation for the 2008 death of Imad Mughniyeh and the repeated sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, attributed by Iran and Hezbollah to Israel. In both attempts the main target was the Israeli embassy in Baku. The second terrorist attack targeted a Jewish school in Baku. In our assessment the attacks were directed by the Quds Force in cooperation with Lebanese Hezbollah and with the assistance of local Azeri agents.

Foiled Terrorist Attack against the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish School in Baku (January 2012)

On January 24, 2012, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Defense reported that a squad consisting of three Azerbaijani terrorists handled by the “Iranian special services” had planned to carry out terrorist attacks on the embassy of Israel and a Jewish school. According to the Azeri Ministry of Interior, the primary target was Michael Lotem, the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan. The secondary target was the Or Avner Jewish school in Baku, where the terrorists were planning to kill two Chabad emissaries, one a director and the other the chief rabbi. Azeri security forces placed the three terrorists under surveillance and arrested them outside of the Jewish school.[49]

Azeri security forces said that the three squad members were arrested after several months of covert surveillance. Their names were Balagardash Dadashev, who formerly resided in Iran; his nephew Rasim Aliyev, who was promised $150,000; and Ali Huseynov, assigned to fire a sniper rifle. The three terrorists received weapons, explosives and ammunition smuggled from Iran (news.az, January 19, 2012).

Preliminary findings of the Azeri investigation indicate the following:[50]

1) Balagardash Dadashev was handled by Iranian intelligence agents to carry out the terrorist attack. Dadashev, 60, is a resident of the city of Ardabil, Iran. Until the mid-1990s, he was wanted by the Azeri authorities for conspiracy to commit abduction, involvement in murder and smuggling weapons.[51]

Balagardash Dadashev (AZTV, February 1, 2012, as shown on YouTube)

 

2) Rasim Aliyev, Dadashev’s nephew, met him at his Ardabil apartment in August 2011 and was instructed by his uncle to assassinate foreigners (i.e., Israelis) working in Baku. Dadashev promised his nephew $150,000 dollars for killings and gave him an initial payment of $9,300 (news.az, January 19, 2012).

Rasim Aliyev (AZTV, February 1, 2012, as shown on YouTube)

 

3) Rasim Aliyev asked his neighbor Ali Huseynov to shoot selected targets and promised him half of the money he would receive for the terrorist attacks. Ali Huseynov agreed, and Aliyev gave him a $7,000 down payment for the preparations, which included purchasing a car. He also showed him maps and photographs of the terrorist attack targets and their cars. Ali Huseynov spent some of the money to purchase and repair a BMW and other equipment.

Ali Huseynov (AZTV, February 1, 2012, picture from YouTube)

 

4) After carrying out surveillance on one of his targets, Ali Huseynov decided to use a sniper rifle since there were many security cameras in the vicinity of the Jewish school. An alternative was using a pistol to shoot targets near their homes. Ali Huseynov told Rasim Aliyev that he would need a Russian-made sniper rifle with a silencer and a Makarov pistol. Aliyev returned to Iran to report on progress and received instructions to obtain the weapons.

5) At a meeting held in Ardabil, Dadashev told Aliyev that the weapons for the terrorist attacks would be hidden in a secret cache on the Iranian border and asked Aliyev to pick them up there. However, Aliyev claimed the place was dangerous and suggested another location, giving Dadashev a small map showing the place where the weapons would be stashed. Dadashev consulted the Iranian security services, which disagreed. He then told Rasim that the weapons would be hidden at the original location, at the 150th kilometer of the Baku-Astara highway.

6) In October 2011, Dadashev had the following munitions smuggled from Iran: an SVD sniper rifle[52] with a silencer, two ammunition clips and a telescopic sight; three Makarov pistols, each with silencers and ammunition; 16 bags of C-4 plastic explosives; ten electronic detonators and two packs of bullets. The weapons were hidden at the agreed-upon location.

The weapons of the terrorist squad, found by Azeri security forces (AZTV, February 1, 2012, as shown on YouTube). The sniper rifle with the silencer is at the lower left.

 

According to reports in the media, Huseynov was conducting surveillance of two Jewish individuals who visited the Beit Chabad area on several occasions. After he realized he would not be able to carry out a terrorist attack because of the many security cameras installed there, the terrorist squad decided to shoot from a greater distance using the sniper rifle. Another alternative the squad considered was hitting the two targets near their homes (Israeli daily Haaretz, January 25, 2012).

Foiled Terrorist Attack against the Israeli Embassy in Baku (2008)

After Imad Mughniyeh’s death in Damascus in February 2008, Hezbollah promptly sent a terrorist squad to Azerbaijan to retaliate by carrying out a terrorist attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku. The squad consisted of two Hezbollah operatives and four Azeri collaborators. The two Hezbollah operatives were Ali Karaki, a former member of Hezbollah’s foreign operations unit, and Ali Najem Aladine, a Hezbollah sapper. The squad members were arrested by the Azeri security services in May 2008.[53]

The two Hezbollah operatives went to Baku from Lebanon. They then traveled to Iran, returned to Lebanon, and went to Azerbaijan once again. Iranian passports were found in their possession. While in Baku, they stayed in luxury hotels and laid the groundwork for the attack on the Israeli embassy[54] (by collecting information, preparing weapons, and setting up safe houses). In May 2008, the Azerbaijan police intercepted a car carrying the two Hezbollah operatives. Inside were explosives, binoculars, cameras, pistols with silencers, and photographs taken during reconnaissance carried out on the target (the Israeli embassy). After intercepting the car, police raided the squad’s safe houses.[55]

The affair was publicized in the Los Angeles Times in late May 2009, when proceedings against the terrorist squad members began in an Azeri court behind closed doors. According to an Israeli security source, preparations for the attack were well underway: Hezbollah had a network in place to carry out the attack.[56] During the court proceedings it was reported that the target of the attack was the Israeli embassy, and that the squad was organized and directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Since the two Lebanese operatives had poor knowledge of Azerbaijan and did not speak the local language, the Hezbollah operatives received assistance from Iranian agents, who even provided them with an interpreter.[57]

In early October 2009, two Hezbollah operatives were found guilty of planning the attack on the Israeli embassy and sentenced to 15 years in prison each. In addition, four Azeris who assisted them were sentenced to 12 to 14 years in prison. However, about one year later, in November 2010, the Azeri authorities released the two Hezbollah operatives and deported them to Lebanon (Ynet, November 22, 2010).

Iranian Political Subversion against the Azeri Regime

Overview

Since Azerbaijan’s independence, Iran, with Quds Force participation, has intensively engaged in subverting the Azeri regime. Iran’s objective is to destabilize Azerbaijan to pressure its regime into changing the country’s secular character and damage its pro-Western orientation and good relations with Israel.

To that end, the Iranians have made use of various proxies, including radical Islamic organizations, separatist groups, and Iranian-oriented religious and education institutions. On several occasions, Iranian subversion has provoked tensions between the two countries and repeated accusations by Azerbaijan that Iran interferes in its internal affairs. In addition, Iran has instructed its proxies to collect intelligence on Israeli, American and economic targets (such as the oil pipeline to Turkey) on Azeri soil.

A WikiLeaks document discussed a meeting between former President Heydar Aliyev and the American representative in Baku held in 2009. President Aliyev complained that Iranian provocations in Azerbaijan were increasing. Iran, he said, financed not only radical Islamic groups and Hezbollah terrorists, but also a series of activities against the Azeri regime, such as encouraging violent religious rallies in Baku, anti-regime incitement on the Iranian Azeri-language TV channel (for example, showing a photograph of President Aliyev with a Star of David), and organizing demonstrations in front of the consulates of Azerbaijan in Tabriz and Istanbul.[58]

Supporting Subversive Parties and Groups

Iran provided political and financial support for the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP). It is a religious, pro-Iranian Shi’ite opposition party that was banned in Azerbaijan.[59] The AIP was founded in 1991 and openly embraced anti-Israeli, anti-American and anti-Semitic views. It began as a legal party but was later outlawed.

In 1997, the AIP was put on trial, accused of carrying out extensive subversive activities with Iranian assistance. According to the indictment, the Iranians encouraged the establishment of AIP military groups, led by Mahir Javadov, to topple President Heydar Aliyev’s regime.[60] In 2003, as a result of the trial, the party was banned by the authorities.[61]

Nevertheless, the party remained active. Its members organized anti-Israeli demonstrations in Baku in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, and during Israel’s President Shimon Peres visit.[62] AIP leader Movsum Samadov was detained in January 2011 for incitement to topple the government. He denied the accusations that his party had close relations with Iran, claiming that Iran provided nothing more than “moral support.”[63]

In the early 1990s, Iran also began funding the activity of other networks joined by some AIP members:

1) The Azeri Hezbollah, which has operated clandestinely since 1993. Many of its activists underwent training in Iran and obtained weapons from the Iranians.

2) Jayshallah (“God’s Army”) an organization established in 1995, carried out attacks on Western targets, including the United States embassy in Baku.[64]

In the second half of the 1990s, Azeri security services exposed extensive Iranian-run espionage and subversion networks. In June 1999, Azeri authorities reported that during the previous several years 13 Iranian nationals in Azerbaijan were identified as spies; 80 Azerbaijani citizens were asked to cooperate with the Iranian services; 15 Azerbaijani citizens recruited by the Iranian intelligence services were arrested and their crimes were proven in court; and since 1992, hundreds of Azerbaijani youngsters, with the assistance of the Iranian embassy in Baku, traveled to Iran and were recruited by religious leaders to prepare them for becoming mujahedeen (Islamic jihad fighters).[65]

In 2007, the Azeri security services apprehended members of a network directed by Iranian intelligence. Members of the group, called the Northern Fighters of Imam Mahdi (NIMA), had received orders to monitor the activity of American, Israeli and Western diplomats and companies on Azerbaijani soil. In 2005 and 2006, 16 NIMA activists went to Iran to establish ties with the Iranian intelligence services and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. The group produced 150 reports for Iranian intelligence on the activities of the United States, Britain and Israel, and was paid $10,300.[66]

On December 10, 2007, NIMA members were charged with conspiracy to stage a coup for the purpose of enforcing Islamic religious law in Azerbaijan, in cooperation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. According to a Congress report, the group activists received instructions from Iran to gather information on the Israeli and American embassies, international companies and the oil pipeline to Turkey. The activists were sentenced to prison terms for subversive activity. The group was headed by Sa’id Dadashbeyli, a young Shi’ite cleric. Evidence put forward during trial indicated that the group had received funding and training from Iran’s Quds Force.[67]

Killing an Opponent of Iran and Radical Islam (2011)

On November 19, 2011, author and journalist Rafiq Tagi was stabbed in Baku. He was known for strongly criticizing radical Islam, Iran and the Azeri government’s policy on Iran and radical Islam. In 2006, he published two articles claiming that Islam was holding back the development of Azerbaijan and other Muslim countries. Consequently, he was severely criticized in Iran and Azerbaijan. In 2007, he was put on trial in Azerbaijan, found guilty, and sentenced to three years in prison.[68]

However, incarcerating him did not satisfy Iran and radical Muslims. Although several ayatollahs in Iran issued a fatwa sentencing him to death, he continued writing poems and articles. His last article, about Iran and globalization, was published on November 10, 2011. In it Tagi referred to modern Iran as an easily shattered myth, and said that Iran’s threats against Azerbaijan sound ridiculous.[69] After that, he was referred to by the Iranian media as “Azerbaijan’s Salman Rushdie.”[70]

When interviewed in a hospital shortly before dying from his stab wounds, Tagi claimed that he had been attacked by Iranian and radical Muslim agents in revenge for his two articles.[71] The Iranian embassy in Azerbaijan released a statement denying any Iranian involvement in the stabbing, saying that the allegations were intended to sabotage the relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan.[72]

Exporting the Ideology of the Iranian Islamic Revolution to Azerbaijan

After Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991, it was marked by Iran as an easy target for exporting the Khomeinist Islamic revolution. Numerous clerics armed with pamphlets, books and money, were sent to the cities of Azerbaijan to foment an Islamic revival and prevent the new country from developing a pro-Western orientation. To achieve its objectives, Iran established welfare organizations, clinics and educational institutions to consolidate its hold over Azeri society (as it did in other countries). In addition, the Iranian regime made efforts to staff numerous mosques in Azerbaijan with its own clerics.[73]

Two major institutions used by Iran to export the revolution to Azerbaijan are the Iranian Cultural Center in Baku, which disseminates Khomeinist ideology and has had an effect on many strata of Azeri society,[74] and the Imam Khomeini Emdad Welfare Foundation, which opened a regional branch in Azerbaijan in 1993 (the foundation is highly active in Lebanon and assists Hezbollah). A bulletin published by the Iranian embassy in Baku stated that between 1993 and 2002 Emdad provided aid in 19 population centers to 19,000 people in need and 8,000 students. Figures from 2003 indicated that the aid provided by the foundation and other Iranian organizations totaled 25 million dollars.[75]

Iran’s attempts to influence the hearts and minds in Azerbaijan have often provoked dissension and even violent clashes between Iran’s supporters and Azeri authorities. For example:

1) In 2002-2006 violent clashes took place in Nardaran, a village situated about 30 kilometers (about 18.6 miles) from Baku (referred to as “the Nardaran events)”. Since the village is located in the vicinity of a holy Shi’ite site, it has been an important focus of Iran’s propaganda and religious activity in Azerbaijan. Azeri security forces clashed with disgruntled residents who complained that economic aid was not being divided fairly. As a result of Iranian incitement, the confrontations turned into protests against Azerbaijan’s secular constitution. The groups organizing the events had received money, inflammatory literature and weapons from Iran.[76] (Note: In February 2012, the Azeri security forces detained a group of 20 civilians from Nardaran on suspicion of involvement in terrorism and drug trafficking).

2) In the first half of 2011, protests took place across Azerbaijan after women were banned from wearing veils (hijab).[77] Azeri authorities claimed that the protests broke out because of Iranian incitement, and that Iran was interfering in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs. At the same time, the authorities worked to defuse the tension, mainly by lifting some of the restrictions imposed on wearing veils.

Results of the Iranian Efforts to Export the Revolution

Iran’s efforts to export the Islamic revolution, which cost it tens of millions of dollars, were unsuccessful in Azerbaijan. The main reason was that intensive antireligious activity in Soviet Union times had weakened the foundation of Islam in Azeri society, where atheistic sentiments overcame over religious faith.[78] Another contributing factor was the successful counter-activity conducted by Azeri authorities.

The preaching of Iranian clerics in the 1990s prompted the Azeri parliament to pass a law in 1996 banning foreign nationals and non-Azeris from engaging in religious propaganda.[79] In addition, former President Heydar Aliyev jailed and deported Iranian mullahs who preached in Azeri mosques. In 2001, Azerbaijan shut down all Iranian schools in the country. Since then,few Iranian preachers have come to Azerbaijan.[80]

A number of Shi’ite communities still maintain religious ties with Iran and other Shi’ite centers. The Iranian Cultural Center and the Emdad Welfare Center, the two main institutions involved in exporting the revolution, still operate in Azerbaijan. However, Iran’s religious influence in Azerbaijan has greatly diminished.

Encouraging Criminal Economic Activity on Azeri Soil

The documents leaked by the WikiLeaks website included one written by the United States embassy in Baku in March 2009. The document discussed illegal activity, including money laundering, conducted by Iranians in Azerbaijan to bypass the sanctions imposed on Iran. According to the document, Iranian businessmen in Azerbaijan, owners of construction companies, factories, trade companies, and shops were actually engaged in illegal activity. Some of the companies created by Iranians were involved in obtaining spare parts needed by Iran and in various economic and financial activities to generate profits for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. The document also said that some of the companies were involved in drug trafficking, whose revenues ultimately made their way into Iran’s treasury.[81]

The WikiLeaks document included statements about the extent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ economic activity in Azerbaijan. The statements came from Iranian citizens in Baku and Azeri businessmen, including the director of Azerbaijan’s petroleum company.[82] The document listed a number of Iranian individuals in Azerbaijan involved in such activities:

1) Jamal Alavi, an ally of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the director of several trade companies in Azerbaijan and owner of real estate in Baku. Alavi imports spare parts and weapons for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, dividing his time between Baku, Kazakhstan, Russia and China. According to one statement, Alavi’s companies are exclusively owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

2) Adil Sharabiani, a wealthy foreign currency trader, resides in Baku and has close ties with the Tehran regime. He was formerly a senior official in Iran’s Melli Bank. One source claimed to have seen Sharabiani transfer $5 million in cash, which came from Tehran, to an Azeri bank. It is unclear whether it was a payment Sharabiani received for his services or money intended for other purposes. The United States embassy reported that, from time to time, he transfers similar sums of money to the Azeri Xalq Bank.[83]

3) Kamal Darvishi, a famous fighter during the Iran-Iraq War who rose to the rank of general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Although from a poor family, he is now one of the wealthiest people in Iran. He directs several road-building and other construction companies in Iran controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. He came to Baku with his two brothers about ten years ago. He has developed a close personal friendship with Ziya Mammadov, Azerbaijan’s minister of transportation. In recent years, Darvishi’s companies have won eight major infrastructure contracts issued by the Azeri government.

The money-tracking service of Azerbaijan’s Central Bank has blacklisted Iran as a country whose financial activity in Azerbaijan is unwanted, since it is involved in money laundering and financing terrorism.[84]

Appendices

Two more appendices follow with information and background about Iran and Hezbollah’s subversion and terrorist activities in the three of the five arenas in which the terrorist campaign is being waged against Israel:

1) Appendix I: Turkey as an arena for Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism and subversion. (Published at CrethiPlethi.com under the title “Turkey as an arena for Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism and subversion“)

2) Appendix II: Thailand and Southeast Asia as arenas for Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism and subversion. (Published at CrethiPlethi.com under the title “Thailand and Southeast Asia as arenas for Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism and subversion“)

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Notes:

[49] Britain’s Telegraph citing an announcement released by the Azeri Interior Ministry.

[50] news.az, January 19, 2012; AP, February 21, 2012.

[51] hurriet.com.tv citing the Iranian News Agency.

[52] A sniper rifle produced in the former Eastern Bloc. It is currently also produced in Iran.

[53] Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2009 (hereinafter: Los Angeles Times); IDC Herzliya, “ICT’s Jihadi websites monitoring group,” August 2009.

[54] Los Angeles Times.

[55] Los Angeles Times.

[56] Los Angeles Times.

[57] Dr. Alexander Murinson, “Iran Targets Azerbaijan,” June 23, 2010 (biu.ac.il).

[58] Foreignpolicyblog, November 29, 2009.

[59] eurazianet.org.

[60] Nasib L. Nassibli: “Azerbaijan-Iran Relations: Challenges and Prospects (Event Summary).” Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Nassibli was the former Azeri ambassador to Iran; eurazianet.org.

[61] almanac.abpc.org.

[62] Murinson, “Iran.”

[63] bloomberg.com, March 31, 2011.

[64] Murinson, “Iran.”

[65] Nassibli, “Relations.”

[66] Murinson, “Iran.”

[67] fas.org, January 14, 2009; crisisgroup.org, March 25, 2008.

[68] cacianalyst.org, December 14, 2011.

[69] cacianalyst.org, December 14, 2011.

[70] rferl.org, November 22, 2011.

[71] cacianalyst.org, December 14, 2011.

[72] rferl.org, November 22, 2011.

[73] Murinson, “Iran.”

[74] Murinson, “Iran.”

[75] Murinson, “Iran.”

[76] Nassibli, “Relations.

[77] eurasianet.org, March 14, 2011.

[78] Nassibli, “Relations.”

[79] almanac.afps.org.

[80] www.crisisgroup.org, March 25, 2008.

[81] calcalist.co.il, November 30, 2010.

[82] calcalist.co.il, November 30, 2010.

[83] Opening front companies and banks in countries where Iran conducts its subversive activities is a familiar method. For instance, on January 27, 2012, the Guardian published an article on similar activity taking place in Iraq. According to the article, Iran helps establish private banks in Iraq and has Iranian front companies there. The companies have started entering the currency trade in Iraq by purchasing dollars from Iraq’s Central Bank and selling them in Iran. This is made possible thanks to the considerable influence exerted by Iran on the Iraqi prime minister and the considerable financial benefits to those who participate in the illicit trade.

[84] abc.az, March 11, 2011.



2 Comments to “Azerbaijan as an Arena for Iranian and Hezbollah Terrorism and Subversion”

  1. [...] 2) Appendix III: Azerbaijan as an arena for Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism and subversion. (Published at CrethiPlethi.com under the title “Azerbaijan as an arena for Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism and subversion“) [...]

  2. [...] 3) Appendix III: Azerbaijan as an arena for Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism and subversion. (Published at CrethiPlethi.com under the title “Azerbaijan as an arena for Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism and subversion“) [...]


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