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Iran/Azerbaijan: Bi-lateral Relations Grow Tense

Prague, 24 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati's one-day visit to Baku this week served to highlight increasing strains in bi-lateral relations between Iran and Azerbaijan.

These tensions have multiple causes. Each country suspects the other of trying to destabilize its internal political situation. In addition, Iran and Azerbaijan have conflicting strategic and economic priorities. Iran looks to Russia as an ally, whereas Azerbaijan seeks to broaden its cooperation with the United States, Europe and Turkey.

A major cause of tension is the existence in northwestern Iran of a large ethnic Azerbaijani minority estimated at between 12 and 20 million. This is equivalent to up to one third of Iran's total population. By contrast, there are only six to seven million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan.

There are at least two ethnic Azerbaijani organizations in Iran. One, the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, is lobbying for greater autonomy, whereas the more radical Front for the National Independence of South Azerbaijan wants an independent Azerbaijani state in what is now northwest Iran, as a prelude to union with Baku. Although Azerbaijan's leadership has denied any territorial claims on Iran, it has granted political asylum to Iranian Azerbaijanis who advocate Baku's annexation of Iranian territory.

The Baku Government for its part suspects Iran of trying to export its brand of Islamic fundamentalism to Azerbaijan. Four members of the so-called Islamic Party of Azerbaijan were recently sentenced by a Baku court to prison terms of between ten and eleven years on charges of treason. They were said to have received funding from Iranian intelligence for religious activities.

Doubts about the loyalty of its ethnic Azerbaijani population may be the reason why Teheran has not yet implemented an agreement signed with Baku on the opening of consulates. Iran has opened a consulate in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, with which it shares a border, but has blocked the opening of an Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz.

Speaking to journalists in Baku Tuesday, Velayati refused to answer questions either about the Tabriz consulate, or about Iran's flourishing economic cooperation with Armenia. Since the collapse of the USSR, Iran has become Armenia's second-most-important trading partner after Russia. (Iran-Armenia bi-lateral trade in 1995 was worth $126 million.) A recently completed power line has connected the two countries' energy systems and will enable Armenia to receive 200 megawatts of electricity per day from Iran.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Hasan Hasanov characterized Armenia as "a negative influence" on Azerbaijan-Iran relations.

Both Hasanov and Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev asked Velayati to use his influence with Armenia's leadership in order to try to resolve the deadlock in talks on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) so-called "Minsk Group" has been trying to mediate a political settlement for five years, with minimal success. Iran, which is not a member of the OSCE, is excluded from this negotiating process.

Velayati said Iran is prepared to promote a peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh, but he made it clear he disapproves of the involvement in this process of the United States, which together with Russia and France is one of the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group. Velayati said the Azerbaijani territory currently occupied by Armenian forces should be liberated without the involvement of exterior powers.

Velayati also called on the countries of the South Caucasus to coordinate their efforts to prevent a strengthening of U.S. influence in the region. U.S. oil companies are represented in three international consortiums engaged in developing Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea oil fields.

Iran and Azerbaijan disagree over the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaiajn insists that the sea should be divided into national sectors. Iran has, up till now, supported the Russian argument that the Caspian's hydrocarbon resources should be exploited equally by all five littoral states. But Velayati proposed convening a special conference on this issue in order to reach what he called "a mutually acceptable decision about the status of the Sea."