ASTARA, Azerbaijan -- The teahouses of Astara, as usual, are filled with the chatter of men discussing their everyday problems as they sip tea produced in the southern Azerbaijani district bordering Iran.
Their spirited conversations come to an abrupt halt with the introductory jingle of a popular news program.
But while this Azeri-language programming, which has attracted so many locals' attention, offers much fodder for tearoom debate, it is also a key part of what some see as a one-sided Iran-Azerbaijan information war.
The source of the programs is Iran's state-run Sahar TV, whose efforts to broadcast to Azerbaijan in Azeri often overpower domestic signals. They have even been said to reach as far as Baku, about 240 kilometers from the border.
Much of Sahar's programming deals with religion, leading critics to suggest that the broadcasts are part of a wider effort to export the ideals of the Iranian Revolution. Some of those same detractors accuse Tehran of employing a "soft power" assault to unduly influence the Azerbaijani public -- or even undermine indigenous culture or tradition.
The situation has prompted a hostile reaction from Azerbaijan, which last year suspended the licenses of all foreign television broadcasters. Baku claims Iran's broadcasts are illegal and takes issue with the frequent criticism of its government for its political and economic ties to the West.
Once part of the southern frontier of the Soviet Union, moreover, Azerbaijan continues to struggle to define its religious identity following decades of secularism. While more than 90 percent of the population is nominally Muslim (approximately 65 percent Shi'a and 35 percent Sunni), the segment of practicing adherents is believed to be far smaller.
Most of the men RFE/RL spoke to in one Astara teahouse were reluctant to provide their names, but didn't hide their fondness for Sahar TV's "Compass" program and for call-in shows conducted in their native tongue.
One young man, who said he tunes in between work at a car-repair shop, says he shares the belief that the Iranian programming offers alternative opinions rarely seen on domestic television.
"Of course I watch the Iranian channels, they have very good programs," he says. "They have different programs: critical. As needed."
"They say all things that are hidden here," a colleague is quick to add of "Compass," saying it has become his favorite program.
Filling A Void?
An elderly patron, Huseyn Abilov, says he too watches "Compass" but suggests that it is not necessarily by choice. Local channels are jammed by the Iranians, he believes, or simply cannot compete with the strength of the Iranian broadcasts beamed across the border.
While Astara's viewers can only tune in to two domestic channels, high-quality images are available from four Iranian channels -- most broadcasting in Farsi.
Abilov also laments the nature of the programs, saying they are often hostile toward Azerbaijan. "They don't speak for good of our country," he says. "I am very sorry about this. We are friendly nations."
The Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Naser Hamidi Zare, recently addressed such allegations, telling Azerbaijan's ANS television on June 2 that "our relations are sincere" and saying that he was unaware of any criticism of Azerbaijan in Iranian media.
But Abilov is not alone in his assessments. In discussions with Iran, the Azerbaijani government has on several occasions brought up the issue of Iranian interference with its airwaves.
Aflatun Sharifov, director of the Teleradio Production Union under Azerbaijan's Communications Ministry, says Baku is attempting to resolve the issue through bilateral commissions.
But he says the union also keeps a sharp eye out for undue criticism contained in the Iranian broadcasts, which lead to jamming efforts on the Azerbaijani end.
"If there are any broadcasts of anti-Azerbaijani content, we take some measures to prevent those. These measures have been efficient in the southern districts," Sharifov says. "If Sahar TV broadcasts something that harms our national interests, we prevent it. However, we are only doing it in our territory. We cannot do anything in the territory of other state."
Holier Than Thou
Critics might note that the same Azeri-language programming that is causing concern in Baku is unavailable to Iran's own community of millions of ethnic Azeris.
This irony has led some Azerbaijani politicians to suggest that the critical programming derives from Tehran's concern that Azerbaijani policies could destabilize regions dominated by ethnic Azeris, who make up approximately one-quarter of Iran's population.
Baku's regional clout and its diplomatic efforts -- buoyed by the confidence and rapid economic growth that comes with huge oil and gas deposits -- appear to be hitting their stride despite international criticism over rights and democracy issues.
But Azerbaijan frequently finds itself straddling the fence politically between Russia and other postcommunist states, on one side, and the West on the other.
In the energy sphere, this means that Azerbaijan can court Brussels and Washington by sending oil westward via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, while at the same time sending oil north into Russia through the existing Soviet-era network (and south to Iran.)
Likewise, as Baku pledges to help the European Union gain energy security by filling the proposed Nabucco pipeline with natural gas, it mulls increasingly lucrative offers from Gazprom to send its natural gas Moscow's way.
Politically and militarily, Azerbaijan has found itself in an awkward situation. It shows some interest in NATO through its participation in the alliance's Partnership For Peace program, for instance, but has not officially sought NATO membership, which would no doubt raise hackles in the Kremlin. More recently, Baku's offer to host U.S.-backed antimissile defense facilities, extended with Moscow's rhetoric at a fever pitch, raised hackles in Russia.
Azerbaijani officials joined the diplomatic fray over Washington's plans to build an antimissile defense shield to guard against attack by "rogue" states, offering use of the Qabala radar station despite fierce opposition from Moscow, which already rents facilities at Qabala.
Getting Used To It
Back in southern Azerbaijan, residents appear less concerned with geopolitics or the source of the programs to which they are growing accustomed.
Sahar TV's call-in show continues to receive a flood of calls from interested viewers in Astara, Lankaran, Masalli, and other southern Azerbaijani districts.
Rahim, a worker at an Astara teahouse, says locals trust the family nature of Iranian programs and says they fit with their moral and religious values.
"Children like the programs and there are women's programs for women," Rahim says. "My sister-in-law likes religious programs a lot; she always listens to them. She participated in a competition for Koran reading and won a prize from the Iranian Embassy."
In the end, says Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety, much of the success of the Iranian programming can be attributed to local television channels' imposition of censorship.
"Azerbaijanis craving alternative opinion," he says, "feel happy to get one from Iranian channels, even if it comes with anti-America, anti-secular, and sometimes anti-Azerbaijan propaganda."
Kenan Aliyev, Khadija Ismaylova, and Mustajab Mammadov of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report