- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

ASTARA, Azerbaijan — After the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan became free, the oil-rich country was caught in a tug of war for influence between the secular, democratic West and Islamic Iran. Iran sent in preachers, built mosques and gave scholarships to the poor. But Azerbaijan turned to the West.

Nowadays, however, the early rumblings of political Islam are being heard in the world’s biggest Shi’ite Muslim republic outside Iran, aroused by frustration with rampant corruption, intractable poverty, and a sense that for the sake of oil, the Western democracies have chosen to ignore the taint of corruption in its elections.

There are many signs that neighboring Iran is capitalizing on the discontent with a “we-told-you-so” message and winning some support in its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.

Ilham Aliyev, who took over as president from his dying father in 2003 in an election sullied by claims of widespread fraud, visited the White House last month, underscoring his friendship with the Bush administration. But many in Azerbaijan wonder how long his overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 9 million people will stay in the U.S. orbit.

“Azerbaijan will not become an Islamic country overnight, but the beginnings are here,” said Arif Yunusov, author of “Islam in Azerbaijan” and chairman of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, an independent think tank in Baku, the capital.

“People today in Azerbaijan don’t believe America. People believe that the West does not want democracy in our country, it just wants our oil.”

Europe admired

Whether an Islamic surge is coming is open to question. Azerbaijan also has a strong Western-oriented camp, yearning for Europe’s model of good governance and civil rights.

In the cosmopolitan capital, the overwhelming affinity is with Europe, though attendance at mosque prayers is growing steadily, and human rights workers say they were surprised at how many young Azeris joined the demonstrations that swept the Muslim world over the publication of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad.

In the more conservative southern regions that border Iran, the return to Islamic roots is more noticeable.

Azerbaijan is a “very complex country,” said Fariz Ismailzade, a political science professor in Baku. “We have modern girls, but still there is a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. It is slow but it is happening.”

Azeris, says secular opposition politician Eldar Namazov, are “the most European of people in the Islamic world — even more than Turkey. Yet I think you can say today that we see some Islamic renaissance, and the ground is ready for an Islamic revival here in Azerbaijan. … Our society wants political change, but year after year people are disappointed with democracy.”

More than a decade after signing a multibillion-dollar oil deal with a U.S.- and British-dominated consortium, most of this country the size of Maine is miserably underdeveloped. Nearly half the population earns less than $1,000 a year. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent.

Oil revenues rising

Azerbaijan anticipates oil revenues of $160 billion by 2025, and a $4 billion, 1,093-mile pipeline is pumping Caspian Sea oil from Baku through Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Yet outside Baku, gas supplies are erratic and the country runs on dilapidated Soviet-era infrastructure.

All this, say critics, adds up to a new opening for Iran, the Shi’ite giant to the south.

“Iran has always been active in Azerbaijan, but before they weren’t getting the results they wanted,” said Mr. Yunusov, the researcher. That’s changing; “Now people think that Iran’s words make sense, that the claims by Iran against the war in Iraq and against America are not so bad, that the West just wants our resources.”

Iran is reported to be financing Azerbaijan’s opposition Islamic Party. Among Azeri refugees from the 1990s war with Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran is the biggest provider of humanitarian aid, and it gains points from a perception among the refugees that Azerbaijan was betrayed from all sides during the war and that the West has forgotten them.

Iranian television and radio, broadcasting in the Azeri language, are the leading sources of information here in Astara and elsewhere on the southern border. Azeri-language talk shows in the nearby Iranian city of Tabriz are flooded with callers from Azerbaijan.

“Everything we want to find out, we find out from Iranian radio,” said Mammadov Mazjtajab, a former reporter with Radio Liberty in Astara. Broadcast propaganda has increased, much of it directed against the United States, he said.

Increase in propaganda

Mr. Mazjtajab said propaganda has increased noticeably during the nuclear standoff.

Tehran has threatened to strike back at any country that cooperates with an attack on its nuclear facilities. Azerbaijan’s government has promised that its territory won’t be used for military action against Iran, but people living nearby are nervous, pointing to a U.S.-built radar facility just outside Astara and the upgrading of the airport at Nakhichevan, also on the border with Iran, to accommodate NATO jets. Both projects are U.S.-financed.

Iran’s perceived attractions are revealed in an encounter at the border with Jamilya Shafyeov, an Azeri woman wearing three sweaters against the cold and bemoaning her inability to find work. “I think things are so much better over there,” she said, gesturing through a small gray steel gate that opens into Iran. “What do we have here? Nothing. No jobs. If I had a passport I would go there.”

Nail Farziyev, a retailer in Astara, drew cheers from fellow shopkeepers when he said: “We can’t turn our back on Iran and we won’t turn our back on them.

“Why is it that America thinks it can impose its will on everyone?” he asked. “Why can’t Iran have peaceful nuclear energy? I want to know why.”

In Baku, nearly 150 miles to the north, Mr. Yunusov’s think tank is sampling opinion nationally and discovering similar sentiments.

Opinions are shifting

In a survey he did three years ago, he said: “I asked about Iraq and Afghanistan, and then everyone supported the United States and everyone agreed that [Osama] bin Laden was behind the September 11, 2001, attacks.”

But in a new survey he is conducting with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Political Science, he said, “it is all changed now. Some even say maybe the United States planned the [September 11] attacks in order to go after Muslim countries to get their oil.”

In Nadaran, 40 miles from the starting point of a pipeline regarded as an engineering marvel, Hajji Vagif Gasimov hunkered down in a municipal office with bitterly cold wind whistling through broken windowpanes. “Our situation is getting worse from day to day,” he said.

“My father was an oil worker, my grandfather was an oil worker. We are surrounded by gas pipelines and we have no gas. We think that this is America’s fault because they want all our resources.”

In the 1990s, he said, “my dream was to have a democracy like the United States. Now we don’t say we are against democracy — we are against America’s democracy now.”

No one thinks an Islamic takeover is imminent. The Turkish Foreign Ministry says it welcomes good relations between Azerbaijan and Iran. Azerbaijan is one-twentieth the size of Iran, but some Turkish analysts think that given the large ethnic Azeri population in Iran, Baku may have more influence over its neighbor than vice versa.

Confrontation feared

“There are plenty of reports that Iran has helped encourage greater religious devotion,” said Bulent Aliriza, a Turkish analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The failure of the secular opposition to the Aliev regime … has allowed the development of a religiously inclined opposition. But I think for the moment it is manageable. The question is, what will happen if there is a confrontation between Iran and the West? This will make life very difficult for Azerbaijan.”

Rafik Aliyev, a government official charged with managing religious harmony in the country, said the corruption claims are exaggerated and he sees no big protest vote for Islamic parties.

He sees Iran’s influence as both natural and worrying — an open border, propaganda broadcasts, Azeri students being educated in Iran. “Of course all these things can increase religious sentiment and we have been thinking about these issues and taking some measures.”

The measures, he said, include a countrywide refurbishing of infrastructure that has increased electrical supply to the south, and establishment of Islamic teaching institutions to propagate a moderate brand of Islam.

Mr. Namazov, the secular politician who was a powerful aide to Azerbaijan’s late President Heydar Aliyev, said the Islamic Party made gains in his Baku constituency in the disputed November parliamentary election, while secular opposition parties won only a handful of seats.

He said that when he met with European and American ambassadors afterward, he told them: “It is true there is no danger today of there being an Islamic government here, but in five years, if we still have this system of total corruption, unemployment and severe human rights violations, then Islamic representatives will be elected.”

AP correspondent Louis Meixler in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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