Azerbaijan and Iran locked in a spat over rumours of a gay parade

Dan Littauer June 1, 2012
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Azerbaijan has accused Iran of lying over claims the Azeri government was forced to cancel a gay parade during the Eurovision Song Contest last weekend.

As Azerbaijan hosted the kitsch Eurovision song contest, Iran used false rumors of a ‘gay parade’ to be held in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku, in at attempt to discredit the secular Azeri regime as ‘un-Islamic’.

But yesterday (31 May) Ali Hasanov, adviser to President of Azerbaijan, condemned Iran’s intervention as ‘lies’.

He was responding in particular to Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari, of the Iranian-Azeri city of Tabriz, who had announced the alleged gay pride parade had been cancelled because of a successful campaign against it as an outrage to Islamic morality.

The diplomatic row between the two countries has seen Iran using gay issues as a political tool to attack the Azerbaijan government.

Iran has a large Azeri minority population and is believed to see the officially secular Azerbaijan, with its large oil and gas reserves, as a threat to its control over its own Azeri people. Iranian authorities are worried this minority may otherwise want to unite with the more affluent northern neighbor which enjoys a better quality of life.

The two countries have been at loggerheads ever since gay scene website suggested that a pride parade could take place in the the country’s capital, Baku, during the lead-up to Eurovision.

This unsubstantiated rumor was seized upon by the Iranian authorities in order to lambast Azerbaijan for supporting ‘un-Islamic values’.

However, in reality the article was removed within days, with LGBT rights campaigners confirming that no gay parade was ever planned and, indeed, the parade never happened. In fact Azerbaijan has an appalling LGBT rights record.

Despite repeated denials by the Azerbaijani regime and local LGBT groups, Iran continued with their allegations, fanning the flames of religious outrage over the so-called plans for a parade for ‘perverts’.

Things escalated further when angry crowds took to the streets of two cities in Iran in protest on 11 May, one in front of Azerbaijani consulate in the city of Tabriz.

In response, similar rallies were held in front of Iran’s diplomatic mission in Baku to stop the anti-Azerbaijani campaign.

Following this, Iran withdrew its ambassador to Azerbaijan Mohammad Bagher Bahrami in Tehran for consultations on 22 May.

Iranian officials were even more ‘insulted’ during the Eurovision song contest on 26 May when the Norwegian contestant, ‘Tooji’ (Toraj Keshtkar), a gay man of Iranian origin wore a Free Iran green bracelet, a symbol of the country’s democratic reform Green Wave movement.

Tooji later said: ‘I want to support the Green Movement in Iran, they fight to make Iran more democratic. I want to use any fame I get from this to get their plight noticed. I hope Iran will change one day – especially the female and gay rights.’

And an Iranian-Azeri news agency claimed that the cancelled gay parade was a ‘Zionist plot’ with the collaboration of the ‘International Federation of Homosexuals’, a fictional organization, and the Council of Europe but said popular pressure had forced the Azerbaijani government to reluctantly axe it.

The news agency also claimed the Eurovision song contest was a total flop as it too was un-Islamic and was rejected by the people of Azerbaijan. As ‘evidence’ for this it claimed Azerbaijan expected 30,000 visitors and only had a few thousand and that in desperation the Azerbaijani government distributed free tickets to the event.

Last Friday (25 May) Iran further aggravated an already tense diplomatic stand-off when the highly influential Ayatollah Shabestari of Tabriz, said the parade had been cancelled because of popular opinion.

He had been instrumental in stirring up anger and protest around the alleged parade and carries extra weight because he is the spiritual leader of the Azeri Shi’ia Muslim followers.

Shabestari furthermore stated the ‘gay parade’ had created a popular uproar which translated into protests all over Iran and Azerbaijan expessing the anger over the ‘shameful’ and ‘anti-Islamic’ event that ‘insulted’ many Muslim scholars.

His comments seemed to be timed to explain why the fictional parade had never happened and to regain the initiative rather than face the humiliation of being exposed as having made the whole thing up.

Hasanov, the national adviser to the President of Azerbaijan and head of the Department on Social Political Issues, was hitting back at these comments in particular when he condemned Iran yesterday.

In his remarks he slammed Iran’s statements against Eurovision and the ‘gay parade’ as  lies and unreal coming from ‘spurious clergy in Iran’.

He accused the clergy of lying and falsely claiming that ‘they frightened Azerbaijan and prevented holding a gay parade, as if we were preparing to hold such a parade.’

Meanwhile the diplomatic tension continues to build.

Last Tuesday (29 May) the head of the Culture Department of Iran’s Supreme Leadership was refused entry to Azerbaijan and told to return back to Iran after arriving in Baku.

The situation was further exacerbated after two Azerbaijani citizens got lost in Iran. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has already sent three notes to Iran’s Foreign Ministry demanding they clarify the situation with the missing compatriots.

On Wednesday (30 May) the Azerbaijani government announced it arrested 40 people suspected of a ‘terrorist’ plot to attack last week’s Eurovision Song Contest that were held in the Crystal Hall, Baku.

They alleged that these men came from Islamists militant groups in the neighbouring Russian Republic of Dagestan and aimed to also attack several hotels and assassinate the Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. No independent confirmation of this report has been forthcoming.

More: Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan, Europe, eurovision, Iran, Iran, Middle East, Middle East, Pride

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