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A Cold War brews on shores of the Caspian

Azerbaijan has allied with U.S., a tie it says Iran seeks to thwart.

February 10, 2008|Kim Murphy | 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.

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