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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azeris Look to Political Islam

ASTARA, Azerbaijan -- After the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan gained its independence, 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 West.

Nowadays, however, the early rumblings of political Islam are being heard in the world's biggest Shiite 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 challenged by claims of widespread fraud, visited the White House last week, underscoring his friendship with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. But many in Azerbaijan are wondering 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 the capital, Baku.

"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."

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 said they were surprised at how many young Azeris joined the demonstrations that swept the Muslim world over the publication of Danish cartoons featuring 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 professor of political science in Baku. "We have modern girls, but still there is a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. It is slow, but it is happening."

Secular opposition politician Eldar Namazov said Azeris were "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 the country remains miserably underdeveloped. Nearly half of the population earns less than $1,000 per year. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent.

Azerbaijan anticipates oil revenues of $160 billion by 2025, and a $4 billion, 1,750-kilometer pipeline is pumping Caspian Sea oil from Baku through Georgia to Turkey's 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 Shiite giant to the south.

"Iran has always been active in Azerbaijan, but before they weren't getting the results they wanted," Yunusov said. That's changing, however.

"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," he said.

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

Iranian television and radio, broadcasting in Azeri, are the leading sources of information in the border town of Astara and elsewhere in southern Azerbaijan. Azeri-language talk shows based in the nearby Iranian city of Tabriz are clogged 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 at the United States, he said.

Mazjtajab said propaganda had increased noticeably during the nuclear standoff.

Tehran has threatened to strike back at any country that cooperates with an attack on its nuclear facilities. The Azeri government has pledged its territory will not be used for military action against Iran, but people living along the border are nervous, pointing to a U.S.-built radar facility just outside Astara and the upgrading of the airport at Nakhchewan, also on the border with Iran, to accommodate NATO jets. Both projects are U.S.-financed.

Iran's perceived attractions come out 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 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 declared: "We can't turn our back on Iran, and we won't turn our back on them."