Iran’s Rising Influence in Dagestan

By Valery Dzutsev
Well-known Dagestani journalist and analyst Akhmednabi Akhednabiev published a surprise article on the creeping influence of Iran in Dagestan. Akhmednabiev alleged that the members of the Iranian delegation from Gilyan province, who visited the republic earlier in the April 2012, bribed local officials with “tens of millions dollars” to allow the Iranians to build a large Shia mosque in the republic. The Iranians also carved out several other important concessions, such as a right for free distribution of Shia literature. “Anyone who passes through the Azeri-Iranian border today may notice ornate announcements in Russian in large script: “We are inviting young people from Russia and CIS countries for study in religious centers in Iran. Board, meals and a stipend are provided,” the expert said and decried the absence of a government reaction to Shia proselytizing (, June 3).
Dagestan’s population is majority Sunni Muslim, but it has a Shia minority that is mainly spread out in the south of the republic among ethnic Azeris who traditionally live in the city of Derbent. Though little noticed, economic cooperation between Dagestan and Iran was worth $180 million in 2011, and plans are underway to expand trade further. In April 2012, Magomedsalam Magomedov accepted an invitation from Gilyan province’s governor to visit the Iranian province at his earliest opportunity. Gilyan and Dagestan both enjoy access to the Caspian Sea via large ports on their respective territories (, April 12).
The Dagestani author raises fears that Iran has long-standing strategic goals in the republic. Akhednabiev even contends that a possible Russian-Iranian scheme exists to suppress foreign Sunni organizations while backing the Shia organizations in Dagestan. It is indeed unlikely that Iran’s activities in the North Caucasus were not explicitly sanctioned by Moscow. However, it would be hard to imagine that Moscow decided to use Iranian Shiism to counterbalance militant Sunni Islam in the North Caucasus. Most likely, the reason Moscow has allowed Iranian officials to visit the region is linked to Russia’s foreign policy goals and its ongoing maneuvers involving the West and Iran. At the same time the suspicions of the Dagestani analyst, or those standing behind him, indicate some potential for conflict to emerge between different Islamic teachings in the republic.