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Azerbaijan: Dispute With Tehran Surfaces

  • Michael Lelyveld

A host of Iranian complaints against Azerbaijan have surfaced following Tehran's decision to cut off electricity supplies to the enclave of Nakhichevan. Diplomatic efforts seem to be underway to smooth over the dispute, but it is unclear how soon the power will go back on.

Boston, 2 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian decision to cut off electric power to Azerbaijan's enclave of Nakhichevan has sparked a sudden eruption of cross-border resentments that are usually kept in check.

An editorial Tuesday by the English-language Iran News, which was cited by the official news agency IRNA, defended the power shutoff on October 27 as economically justified by Nakhichevan's debts. But the paper then proceeded to air a series of complaints against Azerbaijani policies, which it called "devoid of friendship and understanding."

The editorial, which was apparently not made available for transmission abroad on the Iran News website, blasted Baku for a long list of acts that it called hostile to Tehran. Chief among these was Azerbaijan's "belligerent" opposition to an agreement on a legal division of the Caspian Sea.

The paper also charged that Azerbaijan had tried to exclude Iran from its rightful share in a Caspian oil consortium and had opposed a pipeline route through Iranian territory. In addition, Azerbaijan had aligned itself with Israel and taken "ostentatious" pride in the unfriendly act, the paper said. It added that the Azerbaijanis had voiced views which were "infused with their inclination for intervention in other countries' affairs," an apparent reference to the ethnic Azeri population in northern Iran.

The blast raised doubts as to whether the electricity cutoff was really about debt. The Iran News said that the government had repeatedly let debts slip with friendly neighboring countries like Syria, but that it was now time for a "tit for tat" policy with Azerbaijan to "clearly identify the threshold of our tolerance."

The fiery remarks clashed with calmer IRNA reports from Baku on the same day on the presentation of a new Iranian ambassador and a new pact on judicial cooperation.

The issue of the electricity blackout in Nakhichevan was supposed to have been settled in September after Baku averted a threat during the previous month by paying $1 million on a bill that then amounted to $42 million. Since then, Iranian claims have risen to $45 million despite promises that Azerbaijan would make payments in the form of diesel fuel or gasoline.

The cutoff comes only a week before Azerbaijan's hotly-contested parliamentary election, which is set for November 5. Nakhichevan depends on Iran for some 60 percent of its electric power. The enclave is isolated from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory. Nakhichevan has few financial resources of its own to pay for its power. Energy officials have said that they sell electricity to citizens for about half of its cost from Iran.

The focus on Azerbaijan's policy on dividing the Caspian as a cause of the electricity cutoff seems curious in light of the fact that Russia and Kazakhstan have taken similar stands that are odds with Iran's position. Only Iran and Turkmenistan now seem opposed to Russia's formula for dividing the Caspian seabed into national sectors while keeping the water and its surface in common.

Azerbaijan has also pursued the goal of building the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline to Turkey for at least six years, so that its preference for a non-Iranian route can hardly be considered new. The Iran News editorial makes clear that deep resentments continue over Baku's move in 1995 to cancel an agreement for an Iranian share in the Caspian offshore oilfield known as the "deal of the century."

But aside from the upcoming election, the only new factor seems to be a promised visit to Tehran by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, which has been postponed several times since last year. Last month, it was cancelled without explanation and no new date set after Aliev's return from the United States.

This week, Azerbaijani officials have gone out of their way to explain publicly to Iranian envoys that Aliyev was under doctors' orders to curtail his travels after coming home from an extended medical stay at a U.S. clinic. It is unclear whether the statements will help to soothe Tehran's anger or restore Nakhichevan's power supply. But it is apparent that many problems linger below the surface between the two countries, waiting for any dispute to bring them out.