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Sunday, December 24, 2006




The Azeri Factor

The New York Times reports from another front on which Iran is trying to establish itself as a regional super power.

The New York Times

By ILAN GREENBERG
Published: December 24, 2006


An article seen as denigrating Islam published early last month in an obscure Baku newspaper prompted demonstrations across Azerbaijan and in Iran, raising Azeris’ concerns over Iran’s influence here.

The article blamed Islam for Azerbaijan’s meager economic development.

. . . An Iranian cleric demanded the death of the two authors, and denunciations from village imams and other religious conservatives in Azerbaijan have sent tremors through the Azeri government and the secular elite of this Shiite nation.

. . .

A group of 40 leading public intellectuals has released an open letter calling for Iran to stop encouraging religious extremists in Azerbaijan and for the Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, to rescind his fatwa . . .

. . .

More than a third of Iran’s 66 million people are ethnically Azeri, a beleaguered minority that frequently agitates for more rights and cultural autonomy. A cartoon ridiculing ethnic Azeris by portraying them as cockroaches published earlier in the year in a Tehran newspaper drew protests in northern Iran.

. . .

Iran already has some sway in Azerbaijan. As it does in Lebanon and elsewhere, Iran has lavished social assistance programs on Azerbaijan, especially in the bleak countryside.

Source

As an editor of one of the largest Baku dailies admits to the reporter, such a furor over an article would have been impossible two years ago. The country is growing more religious. Azerbaijan is apparently still deeply secular at the state level. The newly dicovered religious piety is more like a grass and roots development, which can bring in the future more tensions between the secular state and its population, in particular, in rural areas..

What catches attention is a pattern of the Iranian penetration into Azebaijan, which is similar to Lebanon. The Iranians throw money on social projects, in particular, in backward rural areas. Though the reporter don't go into details it is not hard to imagine that religious NGO's are probably the main chunnels through which Iranian money and influence flow into the country. Cultivating underdogs may have become one of the pillars of the Iranian policies aimed at spreading its influence across the region.

It's impossible to know to what extent the accusations thrown at Iran by the Azeri secularists are true and not a result of the paranoia sparkled by the fatwa. But it's clear that the country is getting more religious and the Iranian influence inside Azerbaijan is growing. Azerbaijan may become, if it's not already, another buffer zone for the anti Persian coalition to fight Iran's global ambitions.

It's worth mentioning that while Iran is exciting and riding the wave of Shia religious revival to penetrate Azerbaijan, this is a two way process. Azerbaijan is deep inside Iran in the form of a big Azeri minority which is 1/3 of the population of Iran. There are more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself. Azeris are Shia, but ethnically they are close to Turks and the tensions between them and the state of Iran have never gone away. So that while Iran is penetrating Azerbaijan by using the religious factor, the Azeri minority in Iran is an extension of Azerbaijan inside Iran.

It is the ethnic factor against the religious one. The religious factor may be very powerful in the short term. On another hand it's impossible to keep people in a state of religious fervor forever. It is the ethnic factor that seems to be persisting beyond any expectations and surprisingly difficult to defeat everywhere. So over the long term I place my bet on the ethnic factor to win and this means that there are more countries in the region to go the way of Iraq in the future.

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