28 Şubat 2011 Pazartesi
Azerbaijan fears neighbour Iran's radical influence
The Iranian potatoes, oranges and raisins on sale in the bazaars of Astara are not the only signs of the Islamic republic's influence in this Azerbaijani border town.
There is also the Iranian television station which beams the news according to Tehran into Astara's homes and tea-houses in the Azerbaijani language.
Hundreds of Iranian trucks rumble north each day along the nearby highway, loaded with goods bound for Azerbaijani markets, but despite the trading links between the mainly Shiite Muslim neighbours, their political relationship has become increasingly strained -- particularly over the issue of Islam.
Azerbaijan is an ex-Soviet state with a determinedly secular government, and there have been small but widely-publicised protests outside the Iranian embassy in Baku in recent weeks, accusing Tehran of supporting Islamic extremists in an attempt to destabilise the country.
There is a huge ethnic Azerbaijani minority in Iran itself -- up to a quarter of the Islamic republic's 74 million population, according to some estimates, and way outnumbering Azerbaijan's own population of eight million.
Relaxing in a tea-house in Astara, local trader Elchin Ibrahimli said that Tehran was using the Azerbaijani-language broadcasts on its Sahar television channel as a propaganda weapon.
"This channel likes to exaggerate everything," he said. "For example, if something minor has happened in Azerbaijan, the channel's journalists are portraying it as a disaster or a global-scale problem."
Another local trader, Agasan Hashimli, said that the channel "skillfully exploits problems that exist in Azerbaijan" such as a recent controversy about the banning of Islamic headscarves in schools.
The hijab row sparked demonstrations by pious Muslims, causing officials to accuse Iran of helping to stir up discontent.
The Sahar channel also regularly relays criticism of Azerbaijan for its friendly links with Tehran's foes, the United States and Israel.
"In general, Western rapprochement with Azerbaijan -- in any form -- is perceived by Iran as a threat," said Zahid Oruj, a lawmaker from the pro-government Ana Vatan (Motherland) party.
"Iran supports Islamic extremism in Azerbaijan because if religion takes on a leading role in the state, they will have more levers to influence Azerbaijani policy," he said.
Reports on Azerbaijani television over the past month have also accused Iran of meddling in the country's internal affairs by backing religious radicals.
Another source of anger is Tehran's growing economic relationship with Azerbaijan's bitter enemy, Armenia, amid the increasingly heated dispute between Baku and Yerevan over the territory of Nagorny Karabakh, where the ex-Soviet neighbours fought a war in the 1990s.
"Iran calls on Azerbaijan to become an enemy of Israel because they believe that religion requires it, but at the same time Iran is actively co-operating with a country that has occupied part of Azerbaijan, a Muslim country," said analyst Sadreddin Soltan
Karabakh has been controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan since the war.
"Where, then, is the Muslim solidarity?" he asked.
In January, energy-rich Baku agreed a five-year deal to supply large amounts of gas to Tehran, which despite its own massive reserves has to import gas because of lack of foreign investment, energy inefficiency and huge domestic demand.
But analyst Soltan said that Baku is also "under pressure from the international community to join in with sanctions against Iran" over Tehran's nuclear programme -- another potential source of future tensions.
The town of Astara is itself a symbol of the complex relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran: it was divided when the border was defined by a treaty in the 19th century, leaving most families in the area with relatives on the opposite side of the present-day border.
At the busy customs post, crowds of people wait to cross over into Iran to buy and sell goods or visit family members.
At the bazaar itself, wholesaler Faig Jafarzade said that the Iranian people had the right to choose a strict Islamic regime if they genuinely wanted one.
"It's their own internal affair," he said. "If this system can feed their people, then it's the best one for them."
He said that the Iranian Sahar TV channel was only watched because local stations did not allow internal criticism of the Azerbaijani authorities.
Tehran, which is fighting sometimes violent rebellions by Kurds in its northwest and Baluch in the southwest, would be nervous at the prospect of Iranian Azeris demanding wider cultural autonomy.
Yet the same time, Iranians of Azeri origin hold top positions in the Iranian government and in the Azeri-populated regions in the north of Iran are among the richest in the country.
The Azeri population in Iran control much of the crucial bazaar trade and are tightly integrated into the population in big cities such as Tehran.