The “Axis of Resistance,” a network of non-state actors aligned with Iran, has emerged as a significant force in the Middle East in the last two decades. This coalition includes high-profile groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and various Shi’a groups in Iraq and Syria. Iran has successfully recruited from Shi’a populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past decade, significantly expanding its reach through the network. Despite the attention given to the more well-known members of the Axis of Resistance, the Azerbaijani group Hoseyniyun, or Hüseynçilər in the Azerbaijani language, which also operates within the network, remains relatively unknown.

Who are Hoseyniyun?

The group was initially composed of religious students who had journeyed to Iran to pursue religious education there. According to the founder of the group, Tohid Ebrahim Begli, six Azerbaijani Shi’as went to Syria in 2013 to serve as “Defenders of the Shrine” — a term used in Iran to describe fighters who supposedly protect and defend Shi’a shrines in Syria from extremist Sunni groups. While religious motivations were a driving force for the group, the leader also stated that they were prompted to act by the shame that, according to him, approximately 1,500 people from Shi’a-majority Azerbaijan joined the Sunni jihadist group Islamic State. The founder of the group and many of its prominent members are of Talysh ethnicity, which is a minority group in Azerbaijan. The Talysh people reside primarily in southeastern Azerbaijan, sharing a border and strong cultural and historical connections with Iran. The discrimination and marginalization experienced by the Talysh minority may have contributed to shaping their grievances.

Even though the group participated in the Syrian civil war, it was not officially acknowledged as part of the Axis of Resistance until 2017, when Quds Force head Gen. Qassem Soleimani endorsed it and authorized its creation. Begli stated that a group of individuals whom he referred to as a network of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s lobbyists within the Iranian government were against the group’s formation. However, Soleimani gave the group his backing and approved its establishment. The group appeared to have formed a close relationship with Gen. Soleimani, as demonstrated by the involvement of Orkhan Mammadov, a leading member who had studied in Russia and acted as Soleimani's interpreter during his meetings with Russian military officials.

Following its recognition, the group gained prominence in both Iranian and Azerbaijani media. The Aliyev government has accused the group of involvement in a failed assassination attempt of Elmar Veliyev, the mayor of Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, Ganja, in 2018. While Hoseyniyun denied any direct involvement, they have voiced support for the action. They believe that being associated with the assassination has enhanced their legitimacy as the mayor was widely regarded as corrupt and unpopular. Some analysts share Hoseyniyun’s assessment and argue that Yunis Safarov, the individual who attempted to assassinate the mayor, has gained popularity even among non-political and non-religious segments of the Azerbaijani population.

In recent years, Hoseyniyun’s activities, such as using social media to criticize the Azerbaijani government and explicitly advocating for its downfall, have become a contentious issue between Tehran and Baku. The group, whose leaders are based in Iran, strongly criticizes the close relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel, and has even called for regime change in Azerbaijan. Its activities have been viewed as a threat by Baku, which has requested that Tehran extradite its members. In recent years, Azerbaijan has imprisoned six of them.

A militant organization or a cultural movement?

Although groups associated with the Axis of Resistance are generally recognized for their military orientation, Hoseyniyun says it should not be considered solely a militant group. Instead, it highlights the significance of its cultural identity and the importance of employing soft power. The group’s leadership believes that relying exclusively on military power without raising public awareness would be ineffective. This is due to the Azerbaijani government's longstanding control over the media, resulting in limited knowledge among citizens about domestic and global events. Therefore, they argue that a broader cultural movement is necessary to promote public awareness, and it is essential for bringing about change in Azerbaijan.

Interestingly, while the group identifies itself with Shi’a Islam, it does not view religion as the only means of exerting soft power. Instead, the group’s leadership advocates for Iranian leaders to take a broader civilizational approach toward Azerbaijan that emphasizes all historical and cultural connections between the two countries, rather than relying entirely on religion.

Some analysts have also noted that Hoseyniyun stands out from other resistance groups due to the educational background of its members. Many of them have studied in Iranian, Russian, and European universities and have pursued religious studies as well. They are also proficient in various languages, including Persian. This language proficiency, particularly in Persian, allows them to effectively communicate with audiences in Iran and Persian-speaking communities. It not only enables them to disseminate their message efficiently but also empowers them to engage with the public through interviews, speeches, and other public platforms. Also, acting as translators during meetings with Russian officials has provided them with valuable access to influential figures, in particular Gen. Soleimani, further strengthening their connections.

Challenges ahead

The expansion of Iran-aligned non-state actors throughout the region was greatly facilitated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring, which weakened state power and left a security vacuum that allowed non-state actors to thrive. Such a security vacuum does not exist in Azerbaijan, which means that Hoseyniyun will encounter significant obstacles in expanding its network within the country. In addition, despite President Aliyev’s reputation for authoritarianism and involvement in high-profile corruption scandals, his legitimacy has been significantly bolstered by Azerbaijan’s military triumph in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. It is difficult to envision any significant opposition challenge to Aliyev’s rule — at least in the short term — after his success in leading Azerbaijan to victory in the recent war.

Moreover, there are doubts about Hoseyniyun’s organizational capacity, with some questioning the group’s ability to mobilize a substantial following due to their relatively small size. Seeking to clarify the group's size, I directly approached Orkhan Mammadov through an intermediary journalist. Mammadov confidently asserted that they have a dedicated base of 15,000 supporters in Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, this is not to deny that the group still needs to consolidate its organizational structure and expand its influence to achieve broader recognition and impact. This may be one of the reasons why the group’s leaders stress the importance of raising public awareness and establishing an organic relationship with Azerbaijani society instead of relying on an exclusively military approach. Without a strong religious social base, the group will struggle to attract new members. Despite an Islamic revivalism in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, secularism remains a dominant force within both state institutions and society at large.

Last but not least, it appears that despite its reputation as an Iranian proxy, Hoseyniyun does not enjoy unanimous support from the Iranian government. The leading members of the group have complained that certain Iranian authorities have repeatedly pressured them to scale back their activities. In fact, in late April, the two main leaders of the group, Tohid Ebrahim Begli and Orkhan Mammadov, were detained for more than a week. The arrest was prompted by allegations raised by the Azerbaijani government that they were a security threat for Baku, which an Iranian security official stated needed to be thoroughly investigated. Their arrest sparked significant backlash online, particularly among Iranian religious and nationalist activists. Ahmad Naderi, a member of parliament, voiced his opposition by posting a tweet, decrying their arrest as an action against Iran's national interests. Although the leaders were eventually released, their temporary detention exposed their vulnerable position and heightened their precarious standing

This is not surprising given Iran’s economic ties with Azerbaijan, which make up more than 50% of Tehran’s trade with the South Caucasus. Also, any escalation of conflict with Baku would be inconsistent with Iran’s “Neighbor First policy, which seeks to offset economic sanctions by increasing trade with neighboring countries. Moreover, should Iran continue to harbor the group, it may serve as a pretext for Azerbaijan to further strengthen its security and intelligence collaboration with Israel. This presents a notable dilemma for Iran, as it could result in a further consolidation of the partnership between Azerbaijan and Israel, posing a significant challenge to Iran's regional objectives and overall security. In other words, it seems that some individuals in the Iranian government view the group as more of a liability than a valuable foreign policy asset — at least at this point.  

Despite the challenging outlook for the success of Hoseyniyun, the group’s leaders remain determined to achieve their objective of a change in regime in Baku in the long run. Their long-term hope for change may not be unfounded. While Aliyev currently holds a political advantage, his future prospects are uncertain due to his reputation as a corrupt dictator and the fragility of authoritarian stability. The legitimacy crisis, which was temporarily alleviated by his successful leadership during the 2020 Karabakh War, could re-emerge once the euphoria of the victory wanes. Furthermore, despite ongoing efforts to diversify the economy, Azerbaijan remains overwhelmingly dependent on energy exports and thus highly vulnerable to external shocks. A significant decline in global oil and gas prices could trigger a political crisis. Aliyev’s potential political and economic vulnerability in the long term could present an opportunity for opposition groups, including Hoseyniyun, to leverage his weakness for their own benefit.


Peyman Asadzade is a post-doctoral fellow at the Middle East Initiative of Harvard Kennedy School. His research primarily centers around the dynamics of security and development in both the Middle East and South Caucasus regions.

Photo from Hoseyniyun Twitter account, cropped.

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