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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Simple Entertainment Or a Warning to Iran?

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BAKU, Azerbaijan — There was gridlock in central Baku on Friday afternoon. Ladas stood bumper to bumper all along the sea front. A bus overheated, jamming up Jafar Jabali Street for a kilometer.

Horn-honking reached fever pitch. One driver had two horns going at once — one ordinary and one playing the William Tell Overture.

This was more than the usual Baku rush hour. The Turkish Falcons were in town, and half a million people had come to Freedom Square to watch them.

Not a pop group, as one of our neighbors thought, the Falcons are the Turkish air force's aerial display team. Squeezed between a woman selling sunflower seeds from a bucket and a family of six wearing their Sunday best, I watched as the Falcons swooped and dived above the bay.

They were extremely impressive. Eight fighter planes trailing red and white smoke somersaulted above us. They dive-bombed toward the crowd, swerving away at the last minute, and drew hearts in the sky.

For a moment, people forgot about their problems — the high unemployment in Azerbaijan, the corruption that's seen a tiny few cream off most of the country's finances for themselves, the unresolved dispute with neighboring Armenia over territory in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The government said the Falcons' display in Baku had been planned for over a year. "It's just a bit of summertime entertainment for the people of Baku," ministers said.

But it seems the real reason they came is more sinister. For six weeks, Azerbaijan and Iran, its neighbor to the south, have been at loggerheads over oil rights in the Caspian Sea.

In July, an Iranian military ship forced an Azeri oil boat to stop exploration work in the southern part of the sea. They said the boat was trespassing in Iranian waters.

Ever since, Iran has been flying military planes into Azeri air space. Tehran wants proper boundaries to be drawn up in the Caspian Sea — that way it would have much more access to the lucrative oil reserves that lie beneath the sea bed.

The Falcons' stint in Baku is being seen by many as a way of showing Iran that Turkey, a member of NATO, will defend Azerbaijan if it came to a head-on conflict.

The United States has criticized Iran's actions. Meanwhile, Armenia has implied it will take Iran's side in the conflict, and Moscow, never one to stand by Azerbaijan, has been watching events here with interest.

Half an hour after it began, the Falcons' display was over. The crowd cheered as eight mustachioed men in red jumpsuits climbed out of their fighter jets and waved. Then everything was back to normal — the traffic, the search for work, the struggle to make ends meet.

Far from being over, perhaps the real problems in Azerbaijan are only just beginning.