Publication: Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 157

Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliev and his foreign trade minister discussed in Baku with the prefect of the northern Iranian province of Gilan, Ali Akbar Taha’i, a plan to expand the free trade zone in the town of Astara in the eastern sector of the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. Aliev pointed to the "positive experience" of another free-trade zone, in the Iranian town of Jolfa on the border with Azerbaijan’s region Nakhichevan. (IRNA, August 18; Interfax, August 19)

Astara is divided by the border between the two countries. Earlier this year, under an agreement among the Azerbaijani authorities in Astara and Lenkoran districts and Iran’s Gilan province, a border market was opened in Astara with the status of a free trade zone. The sides hope for an annual turnover of $10 million at the market. The movement toward openness on this border contrasts to the blockade imposed at the Azerbaijani-Russian border by the Russian side in order to isolate Chechnya. Azerbaijan has suffered massive economic losses from that blockade and has appealed in vain to Moscow to lift it.

At the same time, the development of Azerbaijani-Iranian economic ties seems to be running into resistance from at least some Iranian circles. Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister Hasan Hasanov sent Tehran a protest note over its failure to allow the opening of an Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz, despite an earlier bilateral agreement on the matter. (Segodnya, August 2) Tabriz is the main city in a large area of northern Iran, situated opposite Azerbaijan and inhabited by an estimated 6 million ethnic Azeris, who form a heavy majority of the region’s population and up to 30 percent of Iran’s total population. There exists a history of Azeri irredentism in the region, termed Southern Azerbaijan by many Azeris. Stalin in his time attempted to manipulate this issue. Tehran has traditionally been concerned to keep Azerbaijani influence from the area. Islamic clerics have organized demonstrations in Tabriz against Azerbaijan’s policies as a secular state. Baku for its part has also been careful not to give Tehran cause for suspecting it of territorial designs over the region.

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