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Azerbaijan: Rumors Roil Relations With Iran

As rumors roil relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, Baku may now be faced with a cutoff of electricity to the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports that the struggle in both countries to deal with a series of unverified reports about border security may make it harder to handle the issues of energy supplies and unpaid debts.

Boston, 22 August 2000 (RFE/RL ) -- An Azerbaijani energy official denied last week that Iran has threatened to cut off electricity to Nakhichevan, casting further confusion over relations between the two neighboring states.

Concerns were stirred after reports of an Iranian warning to Azerbaijan's autonomous republic about its overdue electricity bills. Isolated Nakhichevan depends on Iran for 60 percent of its power supplies.

But Muslum Imanov, the president of the Azerbaijani utility Azerenergy, told the country's ANS news agency that a letter from Iran about the electricity debt contained no such threat of a cutoff. Instead, Imanov charged that the entire incident was an effort by Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency to make trouble between Iran and Azerbaijan.

That accusation bore a remarkable resemblance to a recent controversy over reported remarks by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Azerbaijan has been troubled for weeks over Khamenei's alleged comments on strengthening Iran's border with Azerbaijan and a reported incursion in Caspian Sea waters that may or may not have taken place.

Last month, Azerbaijani news outlets reported a statement by Khamenei on the need to tighten border security after visiting the area. The report, citing the National Liberation Movement of South Azerbaijan, quoted Khamenei as saying that some "Iranian traitors and deserters have found refuge in Azerbaijan and can enter the country at any time to perpetrate subversive acts."

The alleged statement and reported plans for an Iranian troop buildup have since been largely dismissed as a hoax perpetrated by Azerbaijani nationalists with ties to northern Iran, since it was not reported by the foreign service of the Iranian official news agency IRNA. But despite a strong reaction within Azerbaijan, there was curiously no immediate denial, either.

The mixed signals followed Azerbaijani reports that Iranian ships had removed a buoy marking the Caspian border and that Iranian aircraft had then violated Azerbaijan's airspace to monitor its replacement. The unverified dispute was apparently real enough to prompt a protest to Iranian frontier authorities, according to ANS. There was still no reported confirmation or denial from the Iranian side.

But last week, a spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Baku denied that Khamenei had ever accused Azerbaijan of harboring traitors, saying, "The authors' aim was to circulate provocative reports for their own political ends, creating obstacles to impede contacts between the two countries. Regrettably, some Azerbaijani officials comment on such groundless and unverified reports."

The spokesman did not say why it took so long to issue a denial. Nor did he address the issue of the reported border incident in the Caspian.

The same uncertainty may now surround the alleged warning about the power supply for Nakhichevan, although this report appears to be more widespread. Like the earlier accounts of discord between Azerbaijan and Iran, this one also was not carried by the foreign service of IRNA. But according to the Agence France Presse news agency, it was reported by IRNA inside Iran, making it unlikely to be an invention of ITAR-TASS.

On Monday, Azerbaijan's ANS agency repeated the threat, citing a press release from the Iranian Embassy in Baku. According to the latest report, Azerbaijan has two weeks to compensate Iran with diesel fuel for Nakhichevan's debt of $42 million, which has gone unpaid since 1997.

Whether the threat is real or not, it seems to underscore the highly sensitive atmosphere in which any reporting on Azerbaijan and Iran takes place. The emotions of ethnic Azeris may be easily manipulated on both sides of the border, as well as in Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev's home region of Nakhichevan.

But the opportunities for mischief may make it impossible for Iran to take the simple step of trying to collect on Nakhichevan's energy debt without political results. Both countries are struggling with internal divisions and security worries, despite their oil wealth.

While fears of Iran spread, Azerbaijan has also been faced with apparently false accounts of incursions by Russian fishing boats on the Caspian and unsubstantiated Russian reports that Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries have been massing near the border with Daghestan.

The open market for rumors may only serve to raise the barriers for the real markets that Azerbaijan needs in the trade of energy and resources to promote economic security.