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Pew: Morality

Pew:The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society Part 4


Most Muslims agree on certain moral principles. For example, in nearly all countries surveyed, a majority says it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. There also is widespread agreement that some behaviors – including drinking alcohol, sex outside marriage, homosexuality and committing suicide – are immoral.


There is less agreement, however, when it comes to other moral questions related to marriage and family life. For example, the percentage of Muslims who say that divorce is morally acceptable varies widely among countries. Similarly, Muslims are divided about the acceptability of polygamy and the morality of family planning.

God and Morality

Muslims widely hold the view that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. In nearly every country surveyed, at least half of Muslims say an individual’s morality is linked to belief in God. This is true especially in the countries surveyed in Southeast Asia, where more than nine-in-ten Muslims say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. At least eight-in-ten say the same in most countries surveyed in South Asia and the Middle East-North Africa region; only in Lebanon does a smaller majority (64%) share this view.

At least half of Muslims in all the countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa accept that personal morality is based on belief in God. This view is most widely held in Niger (88%) and Tanzania (87%), followed by Djibouti and Kenya (75% each).

Most Muslims in Central Asia as well as Southern and Eastern Europe also agree that belief in God is necessary to be moral, including 88% in Azerbaijan and 76% in Kosovo. Only in Albania (45%) and Kazakhstan (41%) do fewer than half share this opinion.

In many countries, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely than those who pray less often to say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. The differences are particularly large in Russia (+40 percentage points), Lebanon (+39), Kosovo (+23) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (+22). On this question, there are no consistent differences by age or gender across the countries surveyed.

Beliefs About Morality

The survey asked Muslims around the world if they considered a range of behaviors to be morally wrong, morally acceptable or not a moral issue. Respondents also could volunteer that “it depends on the situation” or that they don’t know. The survey finds that most Muslims agree that certain behaviors – such as drinking alcohol, suicide and sex outside marriage – are morally wrong. However, significant minorities of Muslims in some countries consider such behaviors morally acceptable or say they are not a moral issue.

Drinking alcohol

Most Muslims surveyed say that drinking alcohol is morally wrong.21 More than half in all countries surveyed hold this view, including more than nine-in-ten in Thailand (98%), Ghana (93%), Malaysia (93%), the Palestinian territories (92%), Indonesia (91%), Niger (91%) and Pakistan (91%).

However, in 11 of the 37 countries where this question was asked, at least one-in-ten say that drinking alcohol is morally acceptable, including in Chad (23%), Mozambique (20%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (17%) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (16%).


In addition, in some countries sizable percentages say consuming alcohol is not a moral issue. These include Afghanistan (23%) and Chad (20%), as well as the former communist states of Albania (34%), Bosnia-Herzegovina (21%) and Azerbaijan (20%).

Suicide and Euthanasia

Majorities of Muslims in all countries believe that suicide is morally wrong, including three-quarters or more in 29 of the 37 countries where this question was asked.22 This view is almost universal in Thailand (nearly 100%), Cameroon (98%) and Kenya (97%).

In only four of the countries where this question was asked do as many as one-in-ten Muslims say suicide is morally acceptable. All four countries are in sub-Saharan Africa: Guinea Bissau (13%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (11%), Mozambique (10%) and Uganda (10%).


In 13 countries, at least one-in-ten Muslims do not consider suicide to be a moral issue. A third or more take this view in Jordan (40%), Azerbaijan (34%) and Egypt (33%).

As with suicide, most Muslims believe that euthanasia – defined in the survey as ending the life of an incurably ill person – is morally wrong. A majority of Muslims in 33 of the 37 countries surveyed hold this view, including more than three-quarters in 17 countries.

The sub-Saharan African countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (14%), Uganda (14%), Mozambique (13%) and Guinea Bissau (12%) are the only nations surveyed where more than one-in-ten Muslims say euthanasia is morally acceptable.

Substantial minorities, however, do not define euthanasia as a moral issue. In 16 of the 37 countries, at least one-in-ten Muslims say it is not a moral issue, including 46% in Jordan, 41% in Azerbaijan and 38% in Egypt. Additionally, in six countries, one-in-ten or more volunteer that the moral status of euthanasia depends on the context in which it occurs: Kazakhstan (14%), Egypt (11%), Albania (10%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (10%), Kyrgyzstan (10%) and Russia (10%).


Most Muslims say that having an abortion is morally wrong, including three-quarters or more in 24 of the 37 countries where the question was asked.23 Azerbaijan is the only country where fewer than a quarter (23%) say terminating a pregnancy is immoral.

By contrast, few Muslims say that abortion is morally acceptable. In only five countries do one-in-ten or more say the practice is morally permissible: Bangladesh (18%), Uganda (15%), Bosnia-Herzegovina (14%), Mozambique (13%) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (10%).


In 13 countries however, at least one-in-ten Muslims say abortion is not a moral issue. This view is especially common in some countries in the Middle East-North Africa region; 34% in Jordan, 22% in Egypt and 21% in Iraq say they do not consider abortion to be a moral question.

Additionally, in 11 of the countries surveyed, at least one-in-ten Muslims volunteer that the morality of having an abortion depends on the situation. Half of Azerbaijani Muslims and more than a third (34%) of Muslims in Tajikistan take this view. Overall, this perception is most common in Central Asia and the Middle East-North Africa region.

Sex Outside Marriage and Prostitution

A strong majority of Muslims in nearly all countries surveyed condemn pre- and extra-marital sex, including three-quarters or more in 29 of the 36 countries where the question was asked. This view is nearly universal in Thailand (99%), Jordan (96%), Lebanon (96%) and Egypt (95%).24


Muslims in Southern and Eastern Europe as well as sub-Saharan Africa are somewhat more tolerant of sex outside marriage. At least one quarter in Bosnia-Herzegovina (26%) and Albania (25%) say sex outside marriage is morally acceptable. And in sub-Saharan Africa, nearly two-in-ten share this view in Guinea Bissau (19%), Chad (18%) and Uganda (18%).

Few Muslims believe sex outside marriage is not a moral issue. In only six of the countries surveyed does more than one-in-ten take this position: Cameroon (17%), Bosnia-Herzegovina (16%), Ethiopia (16%), Chad (15%), Bangladesh (13%) and Djibouti (12%).

Muslims are even more emphatic that prostitution is morally wrong. More than seven-in-ten in each country surveyed say it is immoral. Only in Chad (10%) do as many as one-in-ten Muslims say prostitution is morally acceptable. Meanwhile, in a few countries, small percentages of Muslims say prostitution is not a moral issue: Bangladesh (12%), Chad (12%), Djibouti (10%) and Guinea Bissau (10%).


Muslims overwhelmingly say that homosexual behavior is morally wrong, including three-quarters or more in 33 of the 36 countries where the question was asked.25


Only in three countries do as many as one-in-ten Muslims say that homosexuality is morally acceptable: Uganda (12%), Mozambique (11%) and Bangladesh (10%).

In most countries surveyed, fewer than one-in-ten Muslims believe homosexual behavior is not a moral issue. The exceptions are Bangladesh (14%), Guinea Bissau (14%) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (10%).

Morality and Marriage

Although Muslims strongly agree on the morality of a range of behaviors, Muslims hold a range of opinions on the morality of divorce, family planning and polygamy.


In 15 of the 37 countries where the question was asked, at least half of Muslims consider divorce a morally acceptable practice.26 Acceptance is high in Thailand (65%), Turkey (64%), Lebanon (64%), Bangladesh (62%), Tunisia (61%) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (60%).

By contrast, at least half of Muslims in 10 countries believe divorce is morally wrong. This includes roughly seven-in-ten Muslims in Liberia (72%), Mali (71%), Ethiopia (71%) and Pakistan (71%).


In the majority of countries surveyed, at least one-in-five Muslims say divorce is not a moral issue or that it depends on the situation. These views are particularly widespread in Azerbaijan (50%), Iraq (48%) and Afghanistan (44%).

There is no consistent pattern of differences on this question by age or gender across the countries surveyed. However, younger Muslims are more likely to say that divorce is morally acceptable in Albania (+14 percentage points) and Kosovo (+12). And men are somewhat more likely than women to say that divorce is morally acceptable in Pakistan (+13) and Egypt (+10).


Muslims in the countries surveyed are divided on the moral status of polygamy.27 At least half view polygamy as morally acceptable in 11 of the 37 countries where the question was asked. Acceptance is most widespread in sub-Saharan Africa; at least six-in-ten in Niger (87%), Senegal (86%), Mali (74%), Cameroon (67%), Tanzania (63%) and Nigeria (63%) describe polygamy as morally acceptable. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, however, the only country where a majority of Muslims say polygamy is morally acceptable is Thailand (66%).


At the opposite end of the spectrum, at least half of Muslims in 12 countries say polygamy is immoral. Muslims in Central Asia as well as Southern and Eastern Europe are the most likely to say that polygamy is morally wrong, with six-in-ten or more taking this position in all the countries surveyed in the regions except Kyrgyzstan (53%), Russia (49%) and Tajikistan (47%). Outside these two regions, Tunisia (67%) is the only country where more than six-in-ten reject polygamy.

Compared with divorce, fewer Muslims believe polygamy is not a moral issue or that it depends on the situation. Still, in 14 of 37 countries at least one-in-five say it is not a moral issue or it depends on the circumstances. These views are especially widespread in Jordan (52%), Egypt (51%), Afghanistan (44%), Malaysia (39%) and Tajikistan (38%).

In most countries men are more likely than women to say that polygamy is morally acceptable. The gap is largest in Pakistan (+29 percentage points), followed by Iraq (+21), Thailand (+21), Lebanon (+20), Russia (+19) and the Palestinian territories (+18). There are no consistent differences between the beliefs of younger and older Muslims about the moral status of polygamy.

Family Planning

There is no clear agreement among Muslims in the survey about the morality of family planning.28 In just three of the 21 countries where the question was asked do at least half of Muslims say that it is morally acceptable for married couples to choose to limit the number of children they have. Roughly six-in-ten say this in Indonesia (61%) and Tajikistan (58%). About half say family planning is morally acceptable in Tunisia (51%).


Yet in two countries where this question was asked roughly half of Muslims say family planning is morally wrong – Thailand (50%) and Pakistan (47%). A substantial minority in Tunisia (40%) also shares this view.

In 17 countries, at least one-in-five Muslims say family planning is not a moral issue or say it depends on the situation. These beliefs are particularly common in the Middle East and North Africa. In every country surveyed in the region except Tunisia (8%), more than a third of Muslims say family planning is not a moral issue or it depends, including 56% in Jordan, 49% in Egypt and 47% in Iraq.

There are no consistent differences between older and younger Muslims or men and women in their beliefs about the moral status of family planning.

Sharia, Morality and the Family


The survey finds that Muslims who want sharia to be the official law of the land in their country often have different views from other Muslims about the morality of issues related to marriage and the family. Across countries, however, Muslims who want sharia to be official law do not always take consistent positions on whether divorce and family planning are acceptable practices.


In many of the countries surveyed, beliefs about the moral status of polygamy are strongly linked to support for sharia as the official law of the land. Muslims who favor Islamic law as the official law in their country are consistently more likely to say polygamy is an acceptable practice than are those who do not want sharia as official law. The differences are relatively larger in Russia (+28 percentage points) and Lebanon (+25).


On the question of whether divorce is morally acceptable, support for sharia does not have a uniform effect in all countries. In some countries, those who support Islamic law as the official law in their country are more likely to say that divorce is morally acceptable. This trend is most pronounced in Bangladesh (+22 percentage points) and Lebanon (+11). Meanwhile, in other countries, especially former communist countries in Southern and Eastern Europe, the opposite is true: Those who support sharia as the law of the land are less likely to say divorce is morally acceptable. The largest differences are in Kazakhstan (-33), Albania (-29) and Russia (-19).

Family Planning

In some countries, support for sharia is linked to attitudes on the moral status of family planning. But, as in the case of divorce, how the two are linked differs across countries. In some countries, those who favor sharia as the law of the land are less likely to say family planning is morally acceptable, including in Kazakhstan (-24 percentage points), Russia (-15) and Lebanon (-13). However, those who favor the implementation of sharia as the official law are more likely to say that family planning is a moral practice in Bangladesh (+22), Jordan (+14) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (+11).

Beliefs About Family Honor


The survey asked Muslims whether honor killings are ever justified as punishment for pre- or extra-marital sex.29 In 14 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, at least half say honor killings are never justified when a woman stands accused. Similarly, at least half in 15 of 23 countries say honor killings of accused men are never justified. In only two countries – Afghanistan (60%) and Iraq (60%) – do majorities say honor killings of women are often or sometimes justified, while only in Afghanistan does a majority (59%) say the same about executing men who have allegedly engaged in pre- or extra-marital sex.

In all countries surveyed in Southern and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, roughly half or more of Muslims say honor killings of women who have been accused of pre- or extra-marital sex are never justified, including at least eight-in-ten who hold this view in Kazakhstan (84%), Azerbaijan (82%) and Indonesia (82%). With the exception of Uzbekistan, attitudes toward the execution of accused men are nearly identical to opinions about accused women in these countries.

Muslims in South Asia are less likely to say honor killings of both women and men are never justified. In Pakistan, 45% of Muslims say executing accused women is never justified, and 48% say the same about accused men. In Bangladesh, fewer than four-in-ten Muslims reject honor killings for women (34%) and men (38%), while in Afghanistan roughly a quarter say executing a woman (24%) or a man (24%) is never justified.

In four of the seven countries where the question was asked in the Middle East-North Africa region, at least half of Muslims say honor killings of accused men are never justified: Jordan (81%), Morocco (64%), Tunisia (62%) and Lebanon (55%). Smaller percentages share this view in the Palestinian territories (46%), Egypt (41%) and Iraq (33%). But in only two countries in the region – Morocco (65%) and Tunisia (57%) – does a majority reject honor killings of accused women. In the other countries surveyed in the region, the percentage of Muslims who reject honor killings of women ranges from 45% in Lebanon to 22% in Iraq.


In three countries surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa, Muslims are significantly more likely to reject honor killings of men than women: Jordan (+47 percentage points), Iraq (+11) and Egypt (+10).

Across the countries surveyed, attitudes toward honor killings of women and men are not consistently linked to religious observance. In most countries, Muslims who pray several times a day are just as likely as those who pray less often to say that honor killings are never justified. There also are no consistent differences by age or gender. However, in some countries surveyed, Muslims who support sharia are less likely to say that honor killings of women and men are never justified. Large gaps are found in Albania, Tunisia, Tajikistan and Lebanon, among other countries.


21 Alcohol and other intoxicants are forbidden in the Quran (5:90-1). (return to text)

22 Killing oneself is condemned in numerous hadith, including Sahih al-Bukhari 71:670 and 73:73. (return to text)

23 A hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari (54:430) says that a fetus has a soul within 120 days of gestation. (return to text)

24 Sex outside of marriage is forbidden by the Quran (17:32; 24:2-5). A hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari (34:439) forbids prostitution. (return to text)

25 Certain verses of the Quran indicate that homosexuality is forbidden (Quran 26:165-66 and 7:80-4). (return to text)

26 Surat (chapter) 65 of the Quran specifies certain conditions under which divorce is permissible. (return to text)

27 Polygamy is generally considered an accepted practice in all main schools of Islam. The Quran permits men to take up to four wives as long as they can treat all equitably and with justice. See Quran 4:3. (return to text)

28 According to John Esposito, “The Quran contains no clear or explicit text regarding birth control. However, the traditions (hadith) of Muhammad do. Though some traditions forbid birth control the majority permit it.” See Esposito, John L. 2003. “Birth Control/Contraception.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford University Press, page 44. (return to text)

29 The Quran and hadith do not condone honor killings, that is, taking the life of a family member who has allegedly brought shame on his or her family. See Gill, Aisha. 2011. “Reconfiguring ‘Honour’-Based Violence as a Form of Gendered Violence.” In Idriss, Mohammad Mazher and Tahir Abbas, editors. Honour, Violence, Women and Islam. Routledge, pages 222-223. (return to text)

Turkeys Hypocrisy Over Gaza

It must be one of the biggest casesof diplomatic hypocrisy in the world today.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s most recent efforts to improve damaged relations with Turkey ran into a brick wall once again, receiving only a dismissive response from Israel’s former ally. Lieberman stated Israel is ready “to solve any outstanding disputes” with Ankara but was ignored by Turkish officials despite the deteriorating Middle East environment. Meeting with Turkish journalists, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also contributed this week to the diplomatic push to re-establish close ties with Israel’s one-time friend, telling the journalists Israel and Turkey “were ‘important and stable’ countries in an unstable region” and this regional instability makes reconciliation especially important.

“Turkey and Israel have relations that go a long way,” said Netanyahu. “We need to find ways to restore the relationship that we had, because I think it is important for each of our countries.”

But the appeals of both senior Israeli politicians fell on deaf ears in Ankara. As with past efforts to patch up relations between the two countries, the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists three outstanding issues must be settled before discussions regarding improvement can even begin.

The first condition is that Israel must apologize for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. The Mavi Marmara is a Turkish ship that tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010 but was boarded by Israeli naval commandos. Nine people on the ship died in the ensuing fight with the commandos. The second condition is that Israel must compensate the families of those who were killed, while the third concerns Turkey’s demand that Israel lift its blockade of Gaza.

“As long as Israel does not apologise, does not pay compensation and does not lift the embargo on Palestine, it is not possible for Turkish-Israeli ties to improve,” Erdogan said in 2011 when dashing last year’s efforts to renew friendly ties.

Israel has always said it would never apologize for enforcing its legal blockade of Gaza, which is necessary for its security. Also, the people on the Mavi Marmara were the ones who provoked the violence by ignoring Israeli warnings to stay away and then attacked the commandos with iron bars. Besides, Lieberman said in an Israel Radio interview last year that an apology would not make any difference in Israeli-Turkish relations due to the negative stance the Islamist Erdogan government has adopted towards Israel since it came to power in 2002.

“Whoever sees the positions expressed by Turkey [regarding Israel and the Palestinians] in the international community does not have any illusions that an apology will dramatically improve Israel’s ties with Turkey,” said Lieberman.

And an apology, according to Lieberman, may even be dangerous for Israel, since it may signal weakness in a region where weakness is not liked.

“It is forbidden to be weak, and an apology is first and foremost a message of weakness,” said Lieberman.

But it is Turkey’s last demand, that Israel lift its legal blockade of Gaza, which really stands out due to its hypocrisy. Almost unmentioned by the mainstream media during the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident was the fact that while Turkey was bitterly complaining about the Israeli embargo on Gaza, championing the Palestinian cause before the world, it was at the same time blockading landlocked Armenia, an embargo it has maintained since 1993. Turkey closed its border that year with Armenia, a former Soviet republic in the southern Caucasus Mountains, and has refused to reopen it since, a move that has seriously disrupted the development of the small Christian nation’s economy.

The cause of the border closure was the war between neighboring Azerbaijan and the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a former Soviet autonomous region within Azerbaijan’s borders. In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Supreme Soviet (parliament) voted to break away from Azerbaijan and join Armenia, a move that saw pogroms break out against Armenians in Azerbaijan and eventually led to their being ethnically cleansed from the Turkic-speaking country. Armenians then retaliated, expelling all Azeris living in Armenia.

“The response of the Soviet and Azeri-Turk authorities was strikingly reminiscent of the traditional Turkic reaction to Armenian aspirations for freedom. The genocide process once more gained pace,” wrote Caroline Cox and John Eibner in their book Ethnic Cleansing In Progress: War In Nagorno Karabagh.

In wanting to join Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians believed they were correcting a historic wrong. The new Soviet government first awarded the region to Armenia in 1921, but Stalin cancelled that decision shortly thereafter as part of his divide-and-rule strategy regarding minorities. The future Soviet dictator then gave the territory, which was 95 percent Armenian according to the 1921 Soviet census, to Azerbaijan, setting the stage for the war seven decades later between the two entities.

But what upset Turkey and led to the border closure is that the vastly outnumbered Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, with Armenia’s support, won the war that ended in a ceasefire in May 1994. In the end, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians not only freed almost all their territory from Azeri control but also captured several districts of Azerbaijan proper. And like Israel, a steadfast Nagorno-Karabakh government refuses to return the captured districts until its security is assured, since these areas had been used to launch attacks against its territory.

Like the Arab states with Israel after 1967, since Azerbaijan’s defeat Turkey has been demanding that the captured Azeri land be returned and states it will maintain the blockade of Armenia until it is. Azerbaijan established its own blockade of Armenia in 1989, leaving Armenia with open borders only with Iran and Georgia. Still, the damage from this Turkic blockade has been severe for Armenia’s economy. Armenian President Serge Sarkisian brought up the blockade last year during a speech to the Council of Europe.

“This unlawful blockade of Armenia must come to an end. Europe cannot and should not tolerate new dividing lines,” Sarkisian said.

To its credit, Armenia has not given in to Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s bullying. Again, like Israel, the Armenians live in a rough neighborhood and giving back the captured districts without their terms being met would, as Avigdor Lieberman would probably agree, signal a weakness that could be dangerous if not fatal. After all, the Armenians know what the Turks are capable of, having seen a million of their people perish at Turkish hands in 1915 in the first genocide of the last century (Turkey’s demand that Israel apologize for the nine deaths on the Mavi Marmara while refusing to even recognize its responsibility for a million Armenian deaths is also another instance of its diplomatic hypocrisy).

The United States has tried to come up with a solution to Turkey’s blockade of Armenia. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern has suggested that Turkey open one railroad to Armenia without opening the entire border.  The news outlet ArmeniaNow says this is part of the “settlement without a settlement” solution the European Union also supports. There would be no final peace agreement, ArmeniaNow states, “but the borders should be opened for regional energy and transport projects” under this plan. But so far Turkey has refused. It still demands that Armenia first return “occupied” Azeri territory.

Turkey’s stubbornness on this issue, however, is not surprising. It has illegally occupied northern Cyprus for 40 years, stationing troops there and setting up a puppet state that is not recognized by any country. So Ankara’s insistence that “occupied” Azeri land be returned the embargo on Gaza be ended is simply in keeping with the hypocritical thinking that appears to be guiding Turkish foreign policy, especially regarding Israel and Armenia.By Stephen Brown

U.S. officials among the targets of Iran-linked assassination plots

By /

In November, the tide of daily cable traffic to the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan brought a chilling message for Ambassador Matthew Bryza, then the top U.S. diplomat to the small Central Asian country. A plot to kill Americans had been uncovered, the message read, and embassy officials were on the target list.

The details, scant at first, became clearer as intelligence agencies from both countries stepped up their probe. The plot had two strands, U.S. officials learned, one involving snipers with silencer-equipped rifles and the other a car bomb, apparently intended to kill embassy employees or members of their families.

Both strands could be traced back to the same place, the officials were told: Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran.

The threat, many details of which were never made public, appeared to recede after Azerbaijani authorities rounded up nearly two dozen people in waves of arrests early this year. Precisely who ordered the hits, and why, was never conclusively determined. But U.S. and Middle Eastern officials now see the attempts as part of a broader campaign by Iran-linked operatives to kill foreign diplomats in at least seven countries over a span of 13 months. The targets have included two Saudi officials, a half-dozen Israelis and — in the Azerbaijan case — several Americans, the officials say.

In recent weeks, investigators working in four countries have amassed new evidence tying the disparate assassination attempts to one another and linking all of them to either Iran-backed Hezbollah militants or operatives based inside Iran, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern security officials. An official report last month summarizing the evidence cited phone records, forensic tests, coordinated travel arrangements and even cellphone SIM cards purchased in Iran and used by several of the would-be assailants, said two officials who have seen the six-page document.

Strikingly, the officials noted, the attempts halted abruptly in early spring, at a time when Iran began to shift its tone after weeks of bellicose anti-Western rhetoric and threats to shut down vital shipping lanes. In March, Iranian officials formally accepted a proposal to resume negotiations with six world powers on proposals to curb its nuclear program.

“There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to calm things down ahead of the talks,” said a Western diplomat briefed on the assassination plots, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intelligence. “What happens if the talks fail — that’s anyone’s guess.”

Less clear is whether the attempts were ordered by government officials or perhaps carried out with the authorities’ tacit approval by intelligence operatives or a proxy group such as Hezbollah. Many U.S. officials and Middle East experts see the incidents as part of an ongoing shadow war, a multi-sided, covert struggle in which Iran also has been the victim of assassinations. Four scientists tied to Iran’s nuclear program have been killed by unknown assailants in the past three years, and the country’s nuclear sites have been hobbled by cyberattacks. Iran has accused the United States and Israel of killing its scientists, but it has repeatedly denied any role in plots to assassinate foreign diplomats abroad.

The Obama administration has declined to directly link the Azerbaijan plot to the Iranian government, avoiding what could be an explosive accusation at a time when the two governments are engaged in negotiations on limiting Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. officials say they are less convinced that top Iranian and Hezbollah leaders worked together to coordinate the attempted hits, noting that both groups have a long history of committing such acts on their own, and for their own purposes.

“The idea that Iran and Hezbollah might have worked together on these attempts is possible,” said a senior U.S. official who has studied the evidence, “but this conclusion is not definitive.”


‘Walking a fine line’

Attacks directly targeting American diplomats are rare but not unknown. In 2002, Laurence Foley, a senior official at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan, was fatally shot by suspected Islamist extremists outside his home in Amman, and other diplomats have been killed in recent years in Pakistan, Sudan and Iraq. U.S. intelligence officials believe that Americans would probably have been killed if an alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington last year had succeeded.

In Azerbaijan, however, embassy officials have been alerted to plots against employees at least three times in the past two years. In each case, the alleged planners were discovered and the threats quietly put down by Azerbaijani authorities, working closely with American counterterrorism officials, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials familiar with the incidents. Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country of 9 million, has had a troubled history with its much larger neighbor to the south, but it publicly seeks to maintain friendly relations with Iran, whose population is 16 percent ethnic Azerbaijani.

Embassy employees were told little about the threats. Bryza, the ambassador at the time, worked with embassy security officers to quietly tighten procedures while officials in Washington tried to assess the seriousness of the threats, the officials said. Bryza, who left the State Department this year after the Senate blocked confirmation of his re-nomination to the ambassador’s post, declined to comment about the events.

“They were walking a fine line, trying to avoid panic while taking the necessary precautions,” said a former State Department official who dealt regularly with the embassy. “There was a constant operational concern during that time.”

The most recent threat came to light after a foreign spy agency intercepted electronic messages that appeared to describe plans to move weapons and explosives from Iran into Azerbaijan. Some of the messages were traced to an Azerbaijani national named Balagardash Dashdev, a man with an extensive criminal background and, according to a Middle East investigator involved in the case, deep ties to a network of intelligence operatives and militant groups based inside Iran.

Working from inside Iran, officials said, Dashdev in late October began coordinating the shipment of explosives, weapons and cash to Azerbaijani contacts, including relatives and former criminal associates. As U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence deepened their surveillance, they began to discern what the Middle Eastern investigator described as a “jumble of overlapping plans,” some specifically aimed at Azerbaijan’s small Jewish community and others targeting diplomats and foreign-owned businesses in Baku, the country’s sprawling capital on the Caspian Sea.

During the late fall and early winter, the weapons were smuggled into the country along with at least 10 Iranian nationals recruited to help carry out the plot, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said.

The Azerbaijani participants had been paid a cash advance and were beginning to conduct surveillance on a list of targets — including a Jewish elementary school, a U.S.-owned fast-food restaurant, an oil company office and “other objects in Baku,” according to a brief statement issued by the Azerbaijani government after a series of raids in which about two dozen alleged accomplices were arrested between January and early March.

The Obama administration acknowledged in March that the U.S. Embassy may have been among the intended targets. But in the months since then, the suspects under questioning revealed extensive details about the “other objects in Baku” that had been on the target list, confirming that the would-be assassins intended to go beyond attacks on buildings.

“They were going after individuals,” said the former State Department official who worked closely with the embassy in Baku. “They had names [of employees]. And they were interested in family members, too.”

The alleged plot leader, Dashdev, would tell investigators that the planned attacks were intended as revenge for the deaths of the Iranian nuclear scientists, attacks that Iran has publicly linked to Israel and the United States. Iran vehemently denied involvement in any assassination plot inside Azerbaijan, and the Iranian Embassy in Baku suggested in a statement that the plot was fiction.

“We believe that the glorious people of Azerbaijan understand that this part of the script of Iranophobia and Islamophobia is organized by the Zionists and the United States,” the statement read. Attempts to contact Iranian officials for additional comments for this article were unsuccessful. Dashdev, who confessed to his role in a videotaped message broadcast on Azerbaijani television, remains in custody and could not be reached for comment. Baku officials have repeatedly accused Iran of stirring up unrest among pro-Iranian extremists to drive a wedge between Azerbaijan’s population and its government, which cooperates closely and openly with Western counterterrorism agencies.

“What we are trying to do is build a strong, independent nation that is a responsible actor,” Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Washington, said in an interview. “We have told all our friends and neighbors that expressing disagreement in a civilized way is more beneficial than resorting to terrorism or promoting radicalization.”

String of foiled attacks

U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say the Azerbaijan plot fits a pattern seen in numerous other recent attempts linked to Iran. The foiled assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington involved a similar plan to hire criminal gangs — in this case, members of a Mexican drug cartel — to kill a senior diplomat in a public setting, U.S. intelligence officials note.

The report presented to U.S. officials last month asserts extensive links between attempted assassinations of diplomats in five other countries: India, Turkey, Thailand, Pakistan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Each attempt was carried out by operatives with direct ties to Iran or Hezbollah and directed against diplomats from countries hostile to Iran, the reports states.

Israeli and Indian officials have described substantial Iranian links to a car bombing in February that seriously wounded the wife of an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi. In that Feb. 13 attack, an assailant on a motorcycle attached a magnet bomb to a diplomatic car in which the woman was riding, injuring her and her driver. Indian police have charged an Indian man — a free-lance journalist working for Iranian news organizations — with organizing the attack with the help of three Iranian nationals who had entered the country.

The next day, an alleged plot to kill Israeli diplomats in Bangkok was thwarted when a bomb being assembled exploded prematurely.

The car bombs prepared for use in both attacks were virtually identical, with a magnetic outer shell that was smuggled into the two countries, to be combined later with C4 military explosives obtained from a still-unknown source. Two of the Iranian nationals allegedly involved in the Bangkok attempt were captured, and they, like the suspects in Azerbaijan, are continuing to provide clues to investigators.

The suspects, thought to be low-level operatives, either do not know or will not say who ordered the attacks, leaving investigators to speculate about how far up within Iran’s government the plots may have originated.

“There is not yet a smoking gun,” said the Western diplomat briefed on the evidence. “But the pattern is clear, and each day the volume of evidence grows.”