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Iran Bristles at Azerbaijan for Hosting Forum of Separatists

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April 1 (Bloomberg) -- Iran lodged a protest with Azerbaijan, an ally of the U.S. and Israel, for hosting a conference of groups seeking independence for the Islamic republic’s 20 million-strong minority of ethnic Azeris.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi yesterday summoned Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Tehran, Cavansir Axundov, telling him that “such actions can seriously damage” ties between the two neighbors, according to Iran’s state-run Press TV news channel. Elman Abdullayev, a spokesman for the Azeri Foreign Ministry, wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Speakers at the conference, held last week at a hotel in central Baku, the Azeri capital, said Iran is in the throes of a deep economic and political crisis because of western sanctions against the Persian Gulf state’s nuclear program. Ethnic Azeris were urged to seize the opportunity to build a state in the northwest provinces bordering the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The conference was organized by the so-called South Azerbaijan National Liberation Front, bringing together groups and organizations seeking greater rights and independence for a community that makes up about a quarter of Iran’s 75 million population. The event also featured academics, Azeri parliament members and former officials, including Nasib Nasibli, the country’s ex-ambassador to Iran. No current Azeri government officials took part.

Araqchi described as “provocative” the expression of “intimidating and politically-motivated anti-Iran comments” at the conference in Baku. “Such moves only serve the interests of Israeli circles,” he said, according to Press TV.

Neighborly Disputes

The nations, which share a 756-kilometer (470-mile) border, have been locked in disputes since the former Soviet republic won independence in 1991. Iran has pressured Azerbaijan to cut ties with Israel and Western nations and opposed the entry of companies like BP Plc, Statoil ASA, Total SA and Exxon Mobil Corp. in energy projects on the Caspian Sea.

Last May, Iran recalled its ambassador to Azerbaijan for consultations for several weeks after Islamic “sanctities” were insulted at a rally in Baku.

Azerbaijan, which has been buying drones and missile-defense systems from Israel, has accused Iran of helping arch-foe Armenia in the war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh after the Soviet collapse two decades ago. The government of President Ilham Aliyev last year jailed dozens of Azeri citizens for their alleged involvement in an Iranian-backed plot to carry out a wave of terror attacks on western and Israeli targets in Baku.

Nardaran Rally

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied today in Nardaran, a town 25 kilometers north of Baku where Iran’s influence is strongest. Chanting “Death to America!” the protesters accused the authorities of arresting an Iranian-educated cleric on trumped-up drug charges. Iran’s Shiite religion is shared by two-thirds of Azerbaijan’s population of more than 9 million.

The 29-year-old cleric, Tale Bagirzada, who studied Islam in Iran’s holy city of Qom, was arrested yesterday after he was found in possession of more than 1 gram of heroin, the Interior Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

Residents of Nardaran, rallying in the central Imam Huseyn Square, denied the accusation, saying Bagirzada was arrested for his criticism of the government. The cleric had earlier been imprisoned for protesting a ban on headscarves in secondary schools.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zulfugar Agayev in Baku at zagayev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hellmuth Tromm at htromm@bloomberg.net

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