Wednesday, May 17, 2006

sleepy Astara is watching world affairs with growing alarm and anger

regional: Nervous days on the Azerbaijan-Iran border

In ordinary times, few men could care less about UN resolutions than the regulars at the 1001 Nights Cafe in Astara, Southern Azerbaijan.

Unshaven, they pass the day sipping tea from tulip-shaped glasses, playing the ancient board game of Nardi, and looking at the grey-blue Caspian Sea. Upstairs, past the chipped statue of a mermaid, are the kind of rooms available by the hour.
But with Iran in an international standoff over its nuclear ambitions and the Iranian border just a few hundred meters down the beach, sleepy Astara is watching world affairs with growing alarm and anger.
“Simple people suffer most in war and if one starts in Iran, we will suffer too”, Nariman, 47, mused.
“It’s another American farce, just like Iraq”, grumbled a second man to murmurs of approval. “They want to keep Muslim countries down”.
In Astara they only got to know their neighbors at the start of the 1990s, when restrictions were lifted on what had been one of the Soviet Union’s most tightly sealed borders.
Today, trucks flow steadily into the nearby Iranian town also called Astara, the eastern-most crossing point in the two countries’ 611-kilometer frontier.
Azeri-Iranian trade amounted to a modest 450 million dollars last year, but is growing rapidly -- by 70 percent in the last three years, according to the Iranian embassy in Baku.
At the central bazaar in Astara, the rice, cooking oil and arrays of low-quality toys and bicycles nearly all come from Iran. Locals say that their clothing products go in the other direction.
“Half of Astara lives on trade with Iran. If there were sanctions and they closed the border, we’d be in real trouble”, said shop owner Mushfik Abiyev, 33, said.
And trade is not the only reason locals don’t want their neighbors in upheaval. Azerbaijan and Iran are closely linked, with Azeri history, literature and language full of Persian influences, and both countries are overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim.
Even more important, Northwest Iran is home to between 16-30 million ethnic-Azeris, far more than the eight million in Azerbaijan itself. The Islamic republic’s northern provinces are even called East and West Azerbaijan.
So there was applause in Astara last month when President Ilham Aliyev categorically rejected rumors that he would let American troops use Azeri territory as a launchpad for attacking Iran.
But Azerbaijan is already a military ally of Washington, sending small army contingents to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.
Azeri air space gives NATO air force planes crucial access to Central Asia and Afghanistan, just as Azerbaijan’s central plains are a corridor for US-backed pipelines soon to start carrying Caspian oil and gas for export to the West.
The US government has spent millions of dollars on upgrading Azerbaijan’s defensive capabilities, including a radar installation near Astara.
“If you look at a map, Azerbaijan is a critical country,” a US official said, asking not to be identified. “People have compared it to the Suez Canal.”
Azeris dread being forced to take sides, for while some resent American power, they also mistrust the authorities in Iran, who are widely suspected of trying to spread Islamic fundamentalism to their secular state.
Many accuse Teheran of denying the rights of ethnic-Azeris across the border and even of harboring imperialist ambitions over Azerbaijan. The idea of a nuclear-armed Iran sends shivers down some backs.
“We are caught between two fires,” political scientist Fariz Ismailzade said. “In the short term, war would be bad for Azerbaijan. In the long term, Iran is a risky neighbour if it has nuclear weapons.”
Independent defense analyst Azad Isazadeh pointed out that Azerbaijan also has to juggle the interests of Russia, which supports Iran’s civilian nuclear program, to the north.
“We have a terrible geographic situation and we need to be careful when it’s not our fight. This is a situation where any movement is dangerous. We must just smile and do nothing”.


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