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Azerbaijan looks to ‘blood brother’ Turkey

A story from Azerbaijan before the fall of the Soviet Union, when everything seemed possible and old ties were suddenly being rediscovered across borders that had been closed for 70 years. I even met then disgraced Haidar Aliyev in exile in his hometown of Nakhichevan, where he served me breakfast in a light tracksuit and predicted correctly that the then regime in Baku was only hanging on thanks to support from Moscow.

Wednesday 31 October 1990

Azerbaijan looks to ‘blood brother’ Turkey

Hugh Pope, in Baku, finds a people in search of independence rediscovering their roots.

azerbaijan yellow

The grizzled Azerbaijani in the airport car park leaned forward to display his Grey Wolf lapel pin and whispered in Azeri Turkish: “Are you one of the pan-Turkists from Turkey?” It was an odd welcome to Azerbaijan, the first sign of a web of conspiracies, trade and bloodbrother love that is starting to bind the Soviet republic to Turkey as it moves to greater independence.

For years, such emotional bonds have been suppressed on both sides of the short Transcaucasia border Azerbaijanis share with Turkey. Throughout the Cold War, Nato-member Turkey feared to provoke Moscow and later wished to protect valued trade links. For its part, the Soviet Union feared for the loyalty of the 15 per cent of its population who speak Turkic dialects, stretching into a crescent across its southern boarders in central Asia.

Few in Azerbaijan or Turkey believe that the pan-Turkish dream of a union of Turkic peoples in anything but a dream, like the legend of the Grey Wolf said to have guided the Turks in their migrations westward from the Mongolian steppe a millennium ago. But as the Soviet Union decentralises, it is increasingly common to hear the idea voiced that Turkey will no longer stand alone as the self-styled “last independent Turkish state.”

The Turk in Istanbul may be lukewarm to such ideas, discredited because it was espoused by right-wing extremists during violence in the 1970s. But among the seven million people of soviet Azerbaijan, decades of frustration have bottled up feelings of Turkishness that are far more striking, for instance, than any post-glasnost revival of Islam.

Azerbaijan’s 70 mosques are being renovated but three generations of Marxist education have Europeanised the mainly Shia population. The Marlboro-smoking religious leader of Azerbaijan, Allahsukur Pasazade, effectively lost his deposit in the recent elections. The only taxi-driver I found who displayed a picture of the late Ayatollah Khomeini made it clear he did not want and Islamic state.

On the boulevards of Baku, the Soviet Azerbaijani capital, cassette tape sellers stock almost as much Turkish music as Azerbaijani. Hotel receptionists follow the fate of Turkish football teams and a teashop owner proudly displays a picture in his wallet of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.

“We like Turkish songs. We know their poetry. We have the same blood. We are Turks inside,” said Kamer Novrozaliyeva, 21, an Azerbaijani teacher. Refik Onur, an Istanbul chemicals manufacturer who attended the recent Azerbaijan Business Congress, where the biggest delegation came from Turkey, said he often had to eat in two houses each night in order not to give offence. “I never imagined such love,” he said.

Although plum contracts for the oil and cotton industries are likely to go to Western multinationals, the communist leadership of Azerbaijan has started its foreign visits with ground-breaking tours of Turkey, reciprocated by a visit from President Turgut Ozal’s wife, Semra. The Azerbaijan Prime Minister, Hasan Hasanov, glows with pleasure at the thought of engineering the same economic boom that Mr Ozal gave Turkey in the 1980s.

“We are doing everything that can be done with Turkey,” Mr Hasanov said. “We have great feelings for Turkey and Iran.”

In neighbouring northwest Iran, there are between 15 and 20 million Azeri Turks living in what some nationalists call “South Azerbaijan”. But both Soviet and Iranian Azerbaijanis say that a basic popular wish for reunion is complicated by differences arising from more than 150 years of separate development. For the times being, Soviet Azerbaijanis say that Turkey remains a more attractive partner mainly because it offers economic hope and a Moscow-free rout to the West, through Azerbaijan’s westernmost outpost of Nakhichevan.

A Turkish consulate opens in Baku soon, but Cengiz Israfil, a senior Turkish official of Azerbaijani origin, said: “Our policy has not changed. We don’t want to get involved in internal Soviet politics. Pan-Turkism is a false dream… But personally I would like to see more independent Turkish republics.”

Independence is the ultimate desire of nearly all Azerbaijanis and local political forces in the republic, including a bewildering variety of 15 small new parties, the main opposition movement, the National Front, and even, to a certain extent, the well-entrenched ruling Communist Party. Some Azerbaijanis see Baku’s role as a future lodestar and route to the West for the other Turkic republics of Turkmenistan, Kirgizia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan further east.

Meanwhile lessons have been learned from “Black January” when mass rallies for independence led by the National Front in Baku were crushed by the Soviet Army; 122 people were killed.

“It must be that the Soviet leadership doesn’t feel it necessary to do such things again,” Mr Hasanov says. “We are going towards independence. But it will not be by Lithuania’s or Armenia’s way. We will negotiate [with Moscow] all the way. We do not want to harm the other republics.”

After the Soviet intervention, the Communist Party successfully repressed and split the National Front. Baku remains under a 1am to 5 am, its fine turn-of-the-century centre scarred by a burnt-out Armenian cathedral. Two years of ethnic strife in the Transcaucasus have left some 250,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia living in slum suburbs around Baku or in Armenian homes deserted by their owners. Only a few thousand Armenians remain from what was once a community of 300,000 people.

In this strained atmosphere, two rounds of voting on 20 September and 14 October gave the Communist Party 90 per cent of seats for the 360-seat Azerbaijan parliament. Nobody believes the result is representative, since opposition parties were not allowed to hold meetings, Communist Party pressured on voters on polling-day were great and turnout was low.

“They put 22 other communist candidates up against me in my constituency alone. No wonder I couldn’t reach the 50 per cent barrier,” said Vahit Akhundov, an opposition figure.

“If the elections had been free, the party would have lost power… the Baku leadership is there with the support of the Soviet army,” said Haidar Aliev, the former communist strongman of Azerbaijan who was ousted from the Soviet Politurbo in 1987. Mr Aliev was elected as an independent last month with the highest percentage vote of any candidate in Azerbaijan.

The Communist Party remains relatively strong and is adopting Azeri national issues as it struggles to recover popularity. Mr Hasanov wants an Azerbaijani army and is struggling to bring economic independence and direct foreign trade to the long-isolated republic which has large surpluses in basic foodstuffs and energy.

Azerbaijani officials say that both a strong army and economy are vital to counter what is seen as the main threat to the republic, the Armenians. Azerbaijan is convinced that Moscow and the West give one-sided support to what everyone in Baku describes as Armenian aggression. Azerbaijanis point to Armenian claims on the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh and what they say are a pattern of attacks against the 300,000-strong Azerbaijani enclave of the Nakhichevan, bordering Turkey and Iran.

Armenians launched attacks on Nakhichevan in January. Azerbaijani nationalists tore down the border fences with Iran and Turkey and forced the enclave’s parliament to declare a unilateral independence which, although it collapsed after eight days, was technically the first in the Soviet Union. Some Azerbaijanis are bitter that the Turkish troops could do little more than mass on the border. But Azerbaijanis involved in the clashes said a dozen or so Turkish “Grey Wolf” irregulars managed to slip across to fight alongside what Turks on both sides of the border agree are their “brothers in soul and blood”.

In Iran, what you see is often not what you get

Iran's leader vs. the Great Satan? Qajar tilework on the fortress of Karim Khan Zand in Shiraz

Eternal conflict? An earlier Iranian leader struggling against a legendary enemy, portrayed on 19th century Qajar tilework on the fortress of Karim Khan Zand in Shiraz (photo: HP)

As the U.S. and Iran seemingly get serious once again about trying to settle their differences, here’s a piece I wrote in 2001 about not taking it all too seriously. In Iran, after all, politeness can decree that person from whom you have asked directions is most likely aiming to point you in the direction he or she thinks you already want to go. And a skill in reading metaphysical poetry is probably as useful in understanding the rhetoric in meaning as any latter-day Kremlinology  about reformists and conservatives in the leadership of the 1979 revolution. My reporting in Shiraz formed the basis of a long chapter about Iran in my book Dining with al-Qaedabut this story from the Wall Street Journal in 2000 gives a brief idea.



21 February 2001

International — Reporter’s Journal:

Will the Real Tehran Please Stand Up?

Before Rapprochement,

U.S. Must Figure Out

Who It’s Dealing With


By Hugh Pope

The Wall Street Journal

  I veil my words in curtains, friends

  Let balladeers tease out their ends

— Hafez, 14th-century Persian poet

SHIRAZ, Iran — The U.S. State Department says it’s ready for talks on renewing diplomatic relations with Iran anywhere, anytime. Little wonder: While Iran is no longer necessary as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, a friendlier Iran could help U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, secure Persian Gulf oil supplies and promote Middle East peace.

But what does Iran want? Nobody seems to know, least of all the Iranians themselves. Although chants of “Death to America” and “Wipe out Israel” are still central to Friday prayer meetings all over the country, some Iranians insist Americans shouldn’t take this too literally.

“It’s just a war of words,” says Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, the bright-eyed leader of Friday prayers in this southern city, sitting behind a knee-high desk in a large, white room where guests sit on cushions around the walls. “How many Americans did we kill? None. We are not your enemy. We are your friend. Your trouble is that you cannot distinguish between the two.”

What you see in Iran is never quite what you get. Straight talk is considered vulgar, almost rude. Shia Muslim clergymen debate the mantuq and the mafhum, or what is said and what should be understood. Persian poets revel in verses about wine and lovers, meaning religious ecstasy and God. Iranian business lawyers delight in conjuring up free-trade zones, which emasculate strict constitutional restrictions on foreign investment.

A quarter-century ago, this same Iran was the U.S. strategic kingpin in the Middle East, not to mention a huge market for American armaments and other products. The U.S. broke ties after revolutionary students took American diplomats hostage in 1979, holding them for 444 days (which makes restoring full relations a hard sell in Congress, too.)

Today, mainstream conservative and reformist factions of Iran’s ruling elite — which includes hostage-taking students from two decades ago — both quietly favor restoring ties. Rhetorical condemnation of the “Great Satan” and U.S. flag-trampling ceremonies have subsided. But both sides want to take credit for a move that has broad public support, so both try to sabotage the efforts of the other. (Last year, for instance, hard-liners seized on a Berlin meeting of Germans and Iranians on the future of Iranian political reforms to jail pro-reformers who attended.)

If America wants to reopen its embassy — now a high school for Iranian revolutionary guards, its brick walls painted with fading slogans and a Statue of Liberty with a spooky skull — U.S. diplomats must pick their way through a maze of similar mind-games.

“There’s no one person running foreign policy, no fixed doctrine,” says Mohammad Haidari, 56, an independent magazine editor in Tehran. Though he, too, favors restoring relations, his face lights up when he remembers the pre-revolutionary day he and a friend “beat the living daylights” out of two American soldiers for manhandling an Iranian woman in the street.

Currently, contacts between the U.S. and Iran have stalled on talks about exchanging diplomats and lifting the latest round of U.S. trade and investment sanctions slapped on Iran in 1995. The U.S. says it must be able to discuss allegations of Iran’s links to terrorism and supposed attempts to build weapons of mass destruction. Iran finds this offensive. It notes that neighboring Pakistan has relations with the U.S. even though it has tested a nuclear bomb, has a military regime, is cosy with the even more fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan and harbors Islamist insurgents operating against India in Kashmir. And it was American-backed Iraq that used chemical weapons that injured 60,000 Iranians in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, not the other way round.

For all the rhetoric, Iranian respect for American things has survived surprisingly intact, partly because four million Iranians now live in the West. American models are evident in everything from wide kitchen cookers to military organization. Tehran’s urban development has adopted U.S.-style expressways. “The relationship is love and hate; there is nothing in between,” says Rocky Ansari, managing partner of Tehran legal advisers Cyrus Omron International.

Attracted by spreading Internet access, Iranian youth crave exposure to America and American things. But would they pay for the privilege once a new U.S. Embassy joins battle with this pirate kingdom of intellectual property? American software, its codes cracked by inventive Iranians, is cheaply available in copyright-free Tehran. “I love it when we log on and it says `Welcome!’ And all for free!” says a young computer buff.

Conversely, militant Islamist editor Masood Dehnamaqi says he’d happily organize attacks to block the return of American business. He wants no truck with Americans or their global, ecology-exploiting capitalism — and would fight the majority of Iranians who do. “We want a democracy of the mind, not of sheep-like numbers,” he says at an office decorated with mementos from the front lines of the war against Iraq. Then, smiling, he adds: “Better run along now, before I take you hostage!”

Perhaps he was joking. Perhaps not. Ambiguities and deceptions have always been dear to Iranian hearts, says a respectable professor of literature who wants to be described only as the “wild one of Shiraz.”

“It takes many years to learn the secret,” he says, sitting dervish-like in white cotton leggings, folding and unfolding his ascetic limbs under a thin dark cloak. “And I’m not going to tell you what it is, because then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

The Wall Street Journal


Blood and body-painting at Iran’s 2001 fair to celebrate “sacred defence”

01sep26 musala scuds

Terrorism is a word that is constant trouble — a bit like “Islamism”, it seems to mean something different to everyone. Turkey, for instance, is still tied up in knots trying to work out where it should draw the line between pro-Kurdish violence and political opposition. But the West shoots the word from the hip as well, as I discovered when I wrote this story from Tehran for the Wall Street Journal a fortnight after the 9/11 attacks on America. I struggled for hours to keep the language on target — the Iran-Iraq war was the main subject of this exhibition, after all — but was then blindsided in the headline. Twelve years on, however, Iranians are still struggling to move on from their revolutionary state’s ideology of martyrdom and “sacred defence”.

27 Sept 2001

The Fruits of Terrorism

Are the Stock in Trade

At a Tehran Exhibition

Islamic Holy War Is a Theme

Of the Long-Planned Event;

Martyrs and Suicide Bombers


By Hugh Pope

TEHRAN, Iran — At first glance, the sprawling exhibition here looks like a trade show — with booths, color brochures and free keychains.

"Outpost of the Martyr Seirhani"

“Outpost of the Martyr Seirhani”

But the theme of the First Universal Exhibition of Sacred Culture and Defense is Islamic revolution and holy war. The event glorifies groups condemned by the U.S. and Israel as terrorists.

There is Hezbollah of Lebanon, where Islamists first deployed the suicide car bomb in the early 1980s as part of a successful campaign to drive the U.S., Israeli and French armies out of their country. The group brought along a five-man choir, which sings martial songs to the accompaniment of an electronic keyboard.

“The songs are about Jerusalem and the intifada [Palestinian uprising], about the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, about the leader of the Islamic community, Imam Khomeini,” says a militant in his 20s. He would identify himself only as a songwriter.

Also on hand is the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, at a booth displaying photos of the Iraqi gassing of 5,000 ethnic Kurds in 1988. The Palestinians’ booths are lined with gory pictures of young men who blew themselves up or were killed by Israelis, as recently as a few weeks ago.

“Look at this boy, this beautiful boy,” says Abu Mohammed Mustafa, representative in Tehran of the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas, pointing to the photograph of a smiling young man. In the next picture, the same man burns to death in a car struck by an Israeli missile. “Look, he’s a martyr now,” says Mr. Mustafa.

The long-planned event, which opened Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 2, commemorates the 21st anniversary of the country’s brutal war with Iraq. There is no sign of Osama bin Laden, America’s No. 1 suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Iranian government has long been at odds with Mr. bin Laden and his protectors in Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

While the scene seems to glorify military strikes and terrorist attacks on civilians, Majid Javanmard, a diplomat at the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s stand at the show, has a different perspective.

“People have different views of terrorism. We condemn it, whether it is in New York, in [the Palestinian refugee camps of] Sabra and Shatila, or Afghanistan. You’ve got to look at the context of each case,” he says.

His booth features a fine pair of Persian carpets. Right opposite is a mock street wall with a sign reading “Martyr Road.” Visitors can look through holes in it to see a battlefield where a green military radio lies abandoned in the ruins of a house that glistens with blood and gore.

Dummy soldiers recreate Iran-Iraq warfront scene in central Tehran, Sept 2001 (Photo: HP)

Dummy soldiers recreate Iran-Iraq warfront scene in central Tehran, Sept 2001 (Photo: HP)

The exhibition was organized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the military power base of the hard-line stalwarts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Such militants still control the country’s main institutions despite several elections since 1997 that have been overwhelmingly won by a moderate, reformist faction personified by President Mohammed Khatami.

Some mothers in long black chador cloaks bring their children, and drop them off at a camouflage-netted tent for some recreational painting.

Their supervisor, 22-year-old art student Shabnam Yahyazadeh, asks them to create a child’s-eye view of what they had learned from the exhibition. Most of the work drying around the tent is of tanks, battles in palm groves and soldiers dying bloody deaths.

“This is the air force,” says Amir Mohammed, five years old, pointing to a rendering of a warplane. Then, pointing to red streaks over most of the page, he adds: “These ones are dead. They’re gone.”

Body painting, Iranian revolutionary style

Body painting, Iranian revolutionary style

“I’ve been ordered to make them paint these things. But this is just the surface. It’s politics,” says Ms. Yahyazadeh. “The real Islam has no killing. If some people have flipped it upside down for their own benefit, I don’t agree, the majority doesn’t agree.”

For Iranian hard-liners, the convention offers another opportunity to use the war against Iraq to justify their domination of the country. A section entitled “The Memory of Heroic Deeds” features reconstructed scenes from recruiting offices and troop send-offs, loudspeakers playing stories in song about “Our Jihad” and the martial music once broadcast during offensives. There are walk-through dioramas of the reedbeds in the Iraqi border marshes. Also 3-D re-creations of the dikes and bunkers of the front lines, scattered with battered Toyota landcruisers, antiaircraft guns, barbed wire, and depictions of Iran’s 200,000 war dead.

“Those were the good days,” says Abdulreza Baqizadeh, pausing by an artillery piece with his wife shrouded in black. “What I remember was the spiritual atmosphere of those days, the togetherness. We’ve lost so much since then, the value system is changing, the way money is so important, the way women no longer dress properly.”

Mr. Baqizadeh, who was a medic and now works in an automobile paintshop, says he had longed to become a martyr. “I didn’t deserve it, apparently,” he says. “People think of war as bloody, and it was very ugly. But if a casualty was brought to us, we saw his spirit. It was beautiful to see people ready to give their lives for God.” Mr. Baqizadeh was 17 years old when he enlisted.

Nariman Abdi hands out keychains, Web-site addresses and Korans at a “Sacred Defense” booth sponsored by his employer, Bank Melli Iran. He was just 13 when he rushed to the front at the outbreak of the war. Asked if he shouldn’t have been at school, he just smiled and said the war front was the “school of love . . . a lost paradise.”

Around the next corner, an Iranian elementary-school group stands in mesmerized horror before a video monitor showing scenes from a wartime medical tent. A man displays the contents of a sack of amputated body parts: a foot, an arm, lumps of flesh. When some flinch and look away as doctors hack at an open wound that fills the screen, their teacher orders them to keep watching. “We want to inculcate the new generation with the spirit of sacrifice we had then, in an unequal situation,” explains Reza Khorasani, the prayer leader of a Tehran mosque, remembering his own trips to the front with food and morale-raising sermons during the war.

Scud and future scud-shaped minaret

Scud and future scud-shaped minaret

After a hall of more poster-sized, bloody images — the mutilated stump of a leg, the blistered face of one of the 60,000 Iranians poisoned by Iraqi gas — the circuit of the exhibition tour emerges onto a vista that symbolizes militant Islam. The great prayer courtyard of the unfinished gray concrete and brick cathedral of the revolution, where the affair is located, is filled with enough military hardware for an armaments fair.

One of the blue-shirted militants there waves the movement’s yellow flag, which bears the symbol of the Revolutionary Guards, made up of the Arabic word for “No” turning into a hand clenching a rifle and the Koranic motto: “Oppose them until the last of your strength.”

At the Hezbollah stand, the movement’s satellite-TV station broadcasts a speech by the group’s black-turbaned leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, baring his teeth and shaking his fist in militaristic diatribe. Behind it, a poster of Sheik Nasrallah declares that “the success of the [Lebanese] resistance shows that the liberation of Jerusalem is certain.”

Beside that, among pictures of shell-blasted babies and twisted corpses from Israeli attacks on Lebanon, an elaborate piece of Arabic calligraphy spells out “Death to America, Death to Israel.”

Across the convention-style walkway, where visitors wander over a Star of David being stamped on by an oversize, blood-red footprint, stands the toll of Hezbollah martyrs over 25 years: 1,281 dead, registered in six-foot high numerals dripping with red-paint blood.

“Blood is sacred for us. We didn’t have guns, so we gave our lives. It’s what liberated our country,” says Fadi Habbawi, 22, a young Lebanese student of Persian language and literature who is taking his turn to man the Hezbollah stand. “My goal is not to become a martyr. But if I did become one, then I would go straight to paradise.”


27 September 2001