Iran General NewsAzerbaijan, stuck between U.S. and Iran

Azerbaijan, stuck between U.S. and Iran

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Los Angeles Times: The Caspian nation, a key oil source and an ally of Washington, alleges that Tehran is trying to stoke militancy. The Los Angeles Times

The Caspian nation, a key oil source and an ally of Washington, alleges that Tehran is trying to stoke militancy.

By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

ASTARA, AZERBAIJAN — If there is a post-Cold War Berlin, it may well be this agricultural town straddling a river between Iran and Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that has become an important ally in Washington’s declared war on Islamic extremism.

The pedestrian border crossing is a narrow steel gateway and bridge, traversed daily by local people with a foot in both countries, the occasional heroin trafficker, traders bearing cheap clothing and perfumes and, sometimes, Shiite Muslim proselytizers with boxes full of Iranian religious CDs.

“We see books, all kinds of religious materials. In all of these cases, we take the materials and give them to the administration,” said a border guard who stood scrutinizing a long line of Iranians filing into the country.

In the turbulent world of geopolitics, the Middle East gets most of the ink. But it is here along the gloomy shores of the Caspian Sea that one of the most vital global contests — for energy, money and political dominion — is being waged between East and West.

Azerbaijan, which controls 7 billion to 13 billion barrels of petroleum reserves, is home to a crucial new pipeline that provides the West with its first major access to Caspian Sea oil that is not dependent on Russia. The Central Asian country is also a key refueling point for U.S. planes bound for Afghanistan.

In the last year, however, this little-known nation dominated by Shiite Muslims has seen a rising incidence of religious fundamentalism and threats of extremist violence in opposition to the government’s ties with Washington.

Some of it is spillover from Muslim separatist violence in the nearby Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. But the fingerprints of Shiite-ruled Iran are increasingly apparent, authorities say, in what many analysts believe is a warning against expanded cooperation with the United States.

“Today, Azerbaijan has made a European choice, but Iran has made a choice to the East,” said Rasim Musabayov, a political analyst in the capital, Baku. “It seems to them that an independent Azerbaijan is somehow a danger for the existence of the Iranian republic.”

Concerns in Tehran

The fact of “an increase in Iranian subversive activities in Azerbaijan” coincides with growing Iranian fears that Azerbaijan could be used as a launchpad for an American attack on Iran, said Svante E. Cornell, deputy director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s basically telling the Azeris, ‘This is the damage we can inflict on you,’ ” he said.

Iran is also keenly aware of Azerbaijan’s potential ability to stir up the estimated 20 million ethnic Azeris who live in northwest Iran, an area many in Baku pointedly refer to as “Southern Azerbaijan.” Some Iranian officials fear that the U.S. is pushing ethnic minorities to confront the Iranian leadership.

Mindful that the country is walking on a political knife edge, Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly said they would not allow their country to be used in any military action against Iran. Yet Baku is already comfortably part of the Western infrastructure aimed at Afghanistan, Iran’s eastern neighbor, and signs of a U.S. military presence are not hard to find.

“It’s an open secret that Azerbaijan is essentially set up as a sort of rapid deployment location for the U.S.,” said a Western political analyst who has spent a great deal of time in the country.

“Almost anyone with a trained eye at Baku airport can see there’s this whole section with unmarked planes. For almost all the military flights into Afghanistan, the refueling takes place in Baku, and you only have to walk into one of Baku’s carpet shops to figure out how many American soldiers are overnighting there.

“Essentially, it’s already part of the system.”

In interviews with Muslim clerics, opposition politicians and political analysts in Baku, many said they believed the government was exaggerating the threat of Islamic extremism in order to convince the United States, which sometimes is critical of the government of President Ilham Aliyev’s record on human rights and democracy, that it is waging a vital fight against Islamic militants.

“Radical Islam has become a means of blackmail for Azerbaijan to use against the West,” lawyer Elchin Gambarov said in an interview.

He represented a man who was convicted last year of cooperating with Iran to try to establish an Islamic state in Azerbaijan. “This case from the beginning was a game of role-playing by the Azerbaijan government to show Western countries that ‘I’m here alone against Iran, I’m face-to-face with Iran.’ “

Iranian meddling alleged

Yet even some opposition leaders point to a strong Iranian influence.

Yadigar Sadigov, head of the local branch of the opposition Musavat Party in Lankaran, just north of Astara, said the majority of local clerics have studied in Iran, and it is widely believed that the Iranian secret services are supporting the flow of religious literature across the border.

“They use them to spread their influence in Azerbaijan,” Sadigov said. Iran’s case has been helped, he said, by recent crackdowns on fundamentalist Muslims in Azerbaijan; the continuing poverty of many Azerbaijanis despite recent oil boom riches; shortcomings in elections; and the arrests of independent journalists.

The rise of Islamic militancy is unusual in this country, which has had a laid-back approach to religion. Even now, Azerbaijanis attend mosques in relatively small numbers, and many have difficulty specifying the theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites.

Then, last fall, 15 members of an Islamic charity went on trial on charges that the group was a front for a militant organization backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Prosecutors alleged that members of the group, identified as the Northern Imam Mahdi Army, were in communication with Iranian intelligence agents. They were accused of trying to pass along detailed engineering information about the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, oil pipeline and details of the activities of U.S., British and Israeli agencies in Azerbaijan.

Treason charges

The group’s leader was Said Dadashbeyli, 32, the supply manager for a U.S.-Azerbaijani oil drilling joint venture in Baku who had previously lived in Canada.

Dadashbeyli and his co-defendants were sentenced to up to 14 years in prison in December. According to the National Security Ministry’s account of the closed-door trial, two members of the group met several times with agents in Iran, including in Tehran and the holy city of Qom.

According to the account, they received training in Iran on how to use maps and explosives and were given $10,300 to gather information on the embassies of the U.S., Britain and Israel and establishing an Islamic state in Azerbaijan.

“They expressed their support of ideas of Iranian agents against the U.S. and Israel, and to prevent Azerbaijan from integration into Europe. At the same time, they supported establishment of a state based on religious rules,” the Security Ministry said in a summary of the case.

The ministry said Revolutionary Guard agents also asked the group to obtain photographs and detailed information about the 1,099-mile oil conduit that runs from Baku on the Caspian Sea through Tbilisi, Georgia, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. The pipeline’s completion in 2005 marked a crucial political coup for the U.S. and Europe.

Police in Baku said they seized firearms, explosive devices, knives and drugs as well as counterfeit currency from the apartments of some of the defendants.

Iran has vigorously denied any involvement in the case.

“They raised a delusory accusation against Iran and made propaganda based on it,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini told reporters in Tehran.

However, Dadashbeyli’s lawyer and family acknowledged in interviews that the young businessman, whom they described as an idealist who set up an Islamic charity to help orphans and the poor, had seen his group infiltrated by members with connections to Iran.

Gambarov, the lawyer, pointed to the involvement of two Azerbaijanis who appear to have been recruited as agents by the Revolutionary Guard. He said Dadashbeyli became suspicious of the pair and closed down the organization, but authorities already had secretly recorded many of their conversations.

The question of oil

In recent months, the U.S. has been focusing on building access to new sources of Caspian Sea oil and gas, in addition to the BTC pipeline, that would further weaken Russia’s near-monopoly on energy exports to Europe.

Much of the focus is on a proposed network of pipelines that Western officials hope could transport gas from Turkmenistan, and possibly Kazakhstan, to Central Europe. But Russia is racing ahead with a plan of its own.

Because the Western-backed pipeline would again pass through Azerbaijan, Baku remains a crucial capital for U.S. diplomacy, and Azerbaijani officials say the country’s future lies in expanding its role as a transit point between East and West.

“Once you had East and West linked through the pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan, a lot of things changed,” Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said in an interview.

Azerbaijan has seen billions of dollars in additional investment spawned by the oil transit line; now, he said, the country is evolving as a major thoroughfare for fiber-optic communications, as well as rail transportation bridging Europe and Asia.

“So the decision to sign the contract of the century [for the pipeline”> has been more far-reaching than anyone expected. But to realize these benefits, we need the openness. We have to be integrated,” he said.

“And therefore we shall be at odds with anyone who will try to return us back from where we are trying to escape.”

[email protected]

London Bureau chief Murphy was recently on assignment in Astara.

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