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Iran: Azerbaijan Seeks To Reassure Tehran

President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan put off a scheduled visit to Iran to make a trip to the United States. His government has assured Tehran that this is only a delay, not a cancellation, but the outcome remains to be seen. Correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Washington, 14 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev has postponed -- not canceled -- a long-awaited trip to Iran as he makes a surprise visit this week to the United States.

On Saturday, Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev was quoted as saying that Aliyev would visit Iran in March. Ten days earlier, Guliev announced that the visit would take place in "mid-February." That plan was apparently dropped on short notice in favor of this week's trip to the United States.

The conflicting announcements and schedules have been accompanied by a series of accounts concerning the purpose of Aliev's travels. Last week, an official on the president's staff strongly denied that Aliev's trip would be for medical treatment, stressing that it was a "working visit." Aliyev was scheduled to meet with President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on issues ranging from Nagorno-Karabakh to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.

Other reports from the region suggest that Armenian President Robert Kocharian might also make a surprise stop in Washington for negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the White House says it has no information on those reports. There have also been persistent reports that Aliyev will travel to the Cleveland Clinic for a checkup following his bypass heart surgery last April, and that he will receive treatment for eye trouble related to diabetes.

But the logic of pressing forward toward a solution on Nagorno-Karabakh is strong, whether or not Aliyev makes a side-trip for his health. Aside from the merits of ending an 11-year conflict that has been under cease-fire for over five years, the issue of the disputed enclave is also related to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, in which Washington has a vital interest.

Even though the line has also been discussed for over five years, some officials still hold out hope that its route could include Armenia. Once construction starts, that possibility would be excluded unless a peace deal is signed.

The value of the incentive may soon be outweighed by the damage from delay. But the stakes are high, if not historic. The line would not only help Armenia's military foe, Azerbaijan, but its much older enemy, Turkey. Joining the three countries in mutual interest could have benefits beyond transit fees.

The question of Aliev's health is not necessarily unrelated. Although supporters point to his recurrent travels in recent months, talk about a successor to the aging president has been equally frequent. Aliev's authority in Azerbaijan may be essential to any peace deal. The best opportunity may pass with him, if he steps down.

Both the high stakes and his health may account for Aliev's decision to postpone his trip to Iran. But he seems unlikely to cancel the visit, despite reports that U.S. officials would like him to stay away.

According to Iranian reports, the visit at the invitation of President Mohammed Khatami was scheduled to cover a host of issues. Among the announced topics are the legal division of the Caspian Sea, an Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz, an end to visa requirements, and reactivation of a cross-border gas line.

The pipeline may be the most pressing issue of all. It is notable that the trip, which has been publicized for several months, was only scheduled after Azerbaijan declared electricity rationing in late January due to shortages of gas and fuel oil.

Azerbaijan has sought emergency supplies from countries including Turkmenistan, with which it has thorny relations. So far, Baku has come up empty-handed. Its most recent solution is simply to wait until April, when winter fuel demand is expected to abate, and to build more storage tanks for fuel oil so that it can prevent similar problems next year.

But in the meantime, Baku may be learning a lesson about the risks of going it alone in a dangerous region where its friends lie along a single line stretching through Georgia and Turkey, back to the United States. In addition to frictions with Turkmenistan over pipeline routes and Caspian claims, its relations with Russia are tense, while those with Iran have been strained.

In Aliev's vision, the building of strong east-west links such as Baku-Ceyhan should have saved Azerbaijan from its current predicament. But the pipeline has been long in coming. No acceptable formula has emerged for Nagorno-Karabakh. And the aid restrictions of Section 907 are still in place. Aliyev badly needs a breakthrough on one of the key issues that confront Azerbaijan.

He must still turn to Washington before he visits Tehran. But his next destination may depend on the success of his trip to the United States.