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    Middle East
     Jun 8, 2006
Foreign plots and cockroaches in Iran
By Iason Athanasiadis

TEHRAN - The recent deadly unrest in Iran's predominantly Azeri northwestern region - an area acknowledged as ripe for covert operations - has raised concerns in Tehran not only of foreign hands in action, but also of its resurgent oil-rich, US-friendly neighbor the Republic of Azerbaijan.

As protests were reported, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in a television address that the unrest was part of a foreign plot aimed at disrupting Tehran's efforts to acquire "peaceful nuclear technology".

And in an address to the majlis (parliament), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - himself an Azeri - suggested a link between developments in the northwest and a recent announcement that US President George W Bush's

administration was seeking a multimillion-dollar bill in Congress to promote democracy in Iran.

"This tumult - these ethnic and religious instigations are the last arrow left in the quiver of the enemies of the People's Islamic Republic of Iran," he said. "They are wrong when they plan to spend money with a view to stirring ethnic groups, social classes, and the youth. As a rule their plans are based on a wrong assessment of the situation. And now they've decided to turn to Azerbaijan."

The Bush administration allocated US$75 million this year for the promotion of democracy in Iran, marking a new period of concerted diplomatic pressure by the United States against Iran.

The unrest in the Iranian provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan, in which several people died - some claim hundreds - was set off by a newspaper caricature that depicted a cockroach speaking the Azeri Turkish dialect. It appeared in the state-owned Iran newspaper, prompting large demonstrations in the northwestern, Azeri-majority town of Tabriz, which elicited a strong security response. The editor and caricaturist were immediately arrested and the newspaper has been shut down by the government.

"There is great interest in America, Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan in pushing an agenda of ethnic warfare in Iran," said Evan Ziegel, a historian of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. "But let's recognize that this project is being amply assisted by Persian chauvinist knuckleheads who are willing to play into their hands."

Tension between Iran and its northern neighbor were already on the rise before this incident, as Baku solidified its relationship with Washington and made plans to establish diplomatic relations with Iran's arch-rival Israel.

Jewish Azerbaijani legislator Yevda Abramov told the Baku Today journal that the issue was raised recently when Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev visited Washington and met with Jewish leaders. Israel has had an embassy in the largely Muslim former Soviet republic since 1993. Azerbaijan has resisted opening an embassy in Israel because of opposition by its southern neighbor Iran.

"I think that when President Bush says all options are on the table, the destabilization of Iran's ethnic provinces is one of them," said Abbas Maleki, a senior research fellow at Harvard University. "Don't forget, Mr [Mahmudali] Chehregani, one of the pan-Turkist leaders [agitating for a separatist Azeri agenda], was in Washington last year by invitation of the Defense Department."

The US Defense Department is currently in charge of covert operations being carried out inside Iran.

"Azerbaijan and Iran see their relations as a strategic power struggle in the region because Azerbaijan's orientation is towards America and threatens Tehran," said Kayhan Barzegar, a professor of Iranian foreign policy at the Islamic Azad University.

Political elites in Tehran are concerned that the growing oil boom in Baku will create a strong and reinvigorated Azerbaijan that could act as a pole of attraction for Iran's own Azeri community.

In addition, the US-funded construction of two powerful radars on the Caspian Sea with the ability to eavesdrop on fixed-line and mobile communications inside Iran is a further source of worry for the Islamic Republic.

Furthermore, Iran is not happy with the recent opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline that funnels Caspian Sea oil to the West and is a Washington-supported initiative to diversify its sources of supply away from the Middle East.

Azerbaijani officials in Baku have refrained from criticizing Iranian government actions, or from sending signals that could be interpreted as endorsing the ethnic-Azeri protesters' demands for better social and economic conditions, as well as greater political rights.

While there is no hard evidence pointing toward the troubles as being anything but domestic, Azeri nationalists seeking to capitalize on the international pressure on Iran and sharpen relations between the two neighbors seized on them.

The Baku-based spokesman of an independence movement called the South Azerbaijan National Revival Movement told the Azeri Press Information Agency that angry Iranian protesters demonstrated outside the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran and burned the Azerbaijani flag. The accusations were denied by the Azerbaijani ambassador to Iran, Abbaseli Hasanov.

Backing Iran's claims that outside powers are involved in fomenting unrest are that US and Iranian officials have confirmed that covert operations are ongoing inside Iran.

Furthermore, the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) strategy for overthrowing former Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 was funding negative press coverage in a psy-ops campaign that eroded the popular leader's support base. In this vein, last year it was revealed that the Pentagon had employed the Washington-based Lincoln Group to place articles supporting the US-led occupation in the Iraqi press.

"Sometimes, tried-and-tested techniques are the best ones," said an Iranian businessman commenting on the recent disturbances.

Thus destabilizing Iran's leadership through exploiting resentments felt by some of the groups making up the country's complex ethnic mosaic has been an increasingly popular strategy in Washington over the past year.

And targeting the Azeris is not a new idea either. Writing in his seminal book Know Thine Enemy in the mid-1990s, former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht suggested that "Iranian Azerbaijan was rich in possibilities" for "covert action mischief".

"Accessible through Turkey and ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, eyed already by nationalists in Baku, more westward-looking than most [of] Iran, and economically going nowhere, Iran's richest agricultural province was an ideal CIA [covert action] theater," Gerecht wrote.

Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based correspondent.

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