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Azeris to Defy Iran With First Israel Visit by Foreign Minister

Azerbaijan will send its foreign minister to Israel next week for the first time since the majority Muslim nation on Iran’s northern border regained independence from the former Soviet Union 22 years ago.

A delegation led by Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov plans to meet top Israeli and Palestinian officials on April 21-23 to discuss the Middle East peace process and bilateral ties, the ministry in the capital, Baku, said today by e-mail.

Acting under Iranian pressure, senior Azeri officials have in the past refrained from visiting Israel, one of the main suppliers of weapons to the Caspian Sea nation, declining to open an embassy in the Jewish state after Israel unveiled its diplomatic mission in Baku 20 years ago.

Azerbaijan and Iran, which share a 756-kilometer (470-mile) border, have been locked in disputes for the better part of the past two decades. 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.

Tehran lodged a protest with Azerbaijan last month after Baku played host to a conference of ethnic Azeri groups seeking independence from Iran. Almost a quarter of Iran’s 75-million people are ethnic Azeri, while Iran’s Shiite religion is shared by two-thirds of Azerbaijan’s 9 million population.

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