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Azerbaijan's Iran problem?

By PAUL GOBLE, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Nov. 15, 2007 at 10:45 AM   |   Comments

VIENNA, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Azerbaijanis, among the most secular people in the Muslim world, have long self-confidently joked that even Osama bin Laden could not put a chador on an Azerbaijani woman. But recent events suggest that Baku may now face three potentially serious ethno-religious challenges.

First, at the end of October the Azerbaijani security services broke up what they said was a plot by Islamic extremists to blow up the U.S. and other Western embassies, the latest and far and away the most dramatic indication that radical Muslims have gained at least a small foothold there.

Some analysts downplayed this event, arguing that Baku had blown the event out of proportion either to solidify its ties with Washington or to justify the imposition of tighter controls over the population.

But others pointed out that Wahhabi ideas and Salafist Islam have long infected Azerbaijani society. The U.S. State Department on Oct. 29 confirmed the report, and both the U.S. and British embassies in the Azerbaijani capital cut back on their operations in order to enhance security.

One consequence of these failed attacks was that the Baku authorities reportedly directed booksellers in the Azerbaijani capital to remove from their shelves any book that might have an explicitly Islamist message, including a few that some Muslims would dispute as falling into that category.

Second, last week both the Iranian authorities and the U.S. Embassy in Baku took steps that underscore and possibly heighten the importance and influence of Nakhichevan, the non-contiguous portion of Azerbaijan from which much of Baku's political elite springs and in which Shiite influence is especially strong.

Last week officials announced the opening of bus service between Baku and Nakhichevan via Iran. According to a Mediaforum.az report, operators are selling tickets at the airport rather than at the bus station, passengers must have foreign passports, and the Iranian government is providing transit visas.

Residents of Nakhichevan will get such visas at no cost, while those who are residents of Azerbaijan proper will get them for 20 manats (approximately $24). The cost of a one-way ticket is 20 manats, the news service said, and on the first day the bus line operators sold 34 tickets.

The same day -- but not by bus -- the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Anne Derse, traveled to Nakhichevan and met with the leaders of various opposition political parties there. Baku commentators viewed her visit as an American affirmation of their country's territorial integrity.

While that reading is undoubtedly correct and will certainly be invoked by Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia over the future status of Karabakh, Derse's visit may be more important as an indication of Nakhichevan's importance not only within Azerbaijan but also as a land between that country and Iran.

On the one hand, Nakhichevan is the homeland of both Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his late father, Heidar, and like many non-contiguous border areas in other countries whose people feel pressure from their neighbors, it has been a powerful source of Azerbaijani nationalism.

On the other hand, in 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nakhichevan has been the region in which Shiite religious groups tied to Iran have been especially active. Indeed, at one point Baku moved to close down many of what it has always referred to as "Iranian" mosques.

Rising tensions between the United States and Iran and Baku's close ties with Washington make Tehran's latest move on the bus route and Derse's visit there almost a test of strength, one that many both in that region of Azerbaijan and elsewhere will likely be tracking into the future.

But the third development, clearly linked to the first two, has been a sudden explosion of Azeri media attention toward the part of Iran known as "Southern Azerbaijan." Nearly three times as many Azeris live in Iran -- more than 20 million -- as in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and many in Baku take an active interest in that community.

With reports that the U.S. government is exploring ways of undermining Tehran, some in the Azerbaijani capital have begun to think that Washington might be interested in exploiting this issue to weaken Iran and even possibly prepared to help Baku annex it, a step that if successful could dramatically increase Azerbaijan's international clout.

So frequent have been such suggestions that a Moscow analyst a week ago published an article in Baku's Zerkalo -- an article that has been posted on a number of Russian news and commentary portals -- warning the Azerbaijanis about the dangers of such talks.

Even if nothing comes of this, Zurab Todua of the Moscow Institute of Religion and Politics pointed out, talking about changing borders not only puts Azerbaijanis at odds with an international community that is very much opposed to any such move but undercuts their position on Nagorno-Karabakh, however much they may dispute it.

But more than that, Todua continued, the likely reactions of the various participants in such a conflict are almost guaranteed to be different than the ones those Azerbaijanis making this argument assume -- and those differences could ultimately land Baku in even more hot water.

First, whatever some Azerbaijanis may believe, the United States would be loath to support any border changes, however much some in Baku may want to believe otherwise. And that reality could leave the country more isolated than anyone is likely to be able to imagine.

Second, the Iranians would certainly react to any effort in this direction and even any direct involvement in a war with Tehran not only by launching their own attacks on the Republic of Azerbaijan and exploiting Shiite sympathizers already there but also by loosening or at least not blocking damaging refugee flows northward.

And third -- and it is clear that this is the aspect of the situation that Todua thinks is most critical -- the ethnic Azerbaijanis are more integrated into Iranian society than some in Baku may believe and would likely become more attached to Tehran rather than less were any effort made to transfer sovereignty.

Obviously, the Moscow analyst's argument reflects the interest of many there to keep Baku from allying itself with Washington in the event of a crisis with Iran. But his words also call attention to the dangers inherent in that part of the world in even talking about bringing political borders into line with ethnographic or religious ones.

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(Paul Goble is an expert on Russia and Eurasia at the Institute of World Politics.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2007 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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