On February 3, Azerbaijan’s minister of communications and information technology, Ali Abbasov, and the head of the Iranian State Broadcasting Agency, Ezzatollah Zarghami, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on bilateral media cooperation. The document was signed at the end of Zarghami’s four-day visit to Azerbaijan.
During his trip, Zarghami met with a number of high-level Azerbaijani officials, including Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Speaker of Parliament Ogtay Asadov, and President Ilham Aliyev. Zarghami’s agency oversees some 40 radio and TV channels in Iran.
The Memorandum calls for “broadening technical cooperation” and exchanging “new technological know-how on radio and television programs” (IRNA, February 3). It also urged the two sides to work together to regulate and prevent future radio and TV frequency interference along the Azerbaijan-Iran border (IRNA, February 3).
Abbasov welcomed the “media cooperation between the two countries and said [that] signing the MoU would prepare the ground for a further expansion of ties between the two states” (IRNA, February 3). The parties agreed to establish a joint commission that would help regulate and coordinate issues related to TV and radio transmissions in both directions (Trend, February 3).
Iranian television and radio broadcasts into Azerbaijan have been unregulated for many years, and the new Memorandum is the first document that acknowledges the need to regulate transmissions and prevent electromagnetic interference in the future. The joint commission will try to find ways to reduce the signal strength and range of Iranian transmissions so that they do not penetrate Azerbaijan.
Baku has accused Sahar TV, the most controversial Iranian TV station, of interfering with Azerbaijani TV and radio frequencies. The channel airs some news in the Azeri language and particularly targets the southern regions of Azerbaijan that border Iran.
In the past, Sahar TV had been accused of meddling in Azerbaijan’s domestic affairs by airing political messages. During the presidential race in 2003, for example, Baku complained about Tehran’s broadcasts that promoted opposition candidates and tried to block the transmission of Sahar TV.
On February 3, the Baku daily Echo reported that Iranian television companies have been increasingly active in transmitting religious propaganda on Muslim holy days, such as the Day of Ashura. The paper quoted residents of the Baku suburbs as saying that at least one of the three Iranian TV channels was airing its news in Azeri that day (Echo-Az, February 3).
The digital-frequency mapping of Azerbaijan was completed only in fall 2005, which revealed several disadvantages borne by Baku TV and radio broadcasting vis-à-vis Tehran.
The geographical landscape of the region along the Azerbaijan-Iran border makes it almost impossible for Azerbaijani channels to transmit deep into Iranian territory. The high mountains along the border area on the Iranian side act as a natural barrier that blocks broadcasts from Azerbaijan, but serve as a perfect location for Iranian transmitters. While there are only few transmitters on the Azerbaijani side of the border, there are more than 350 transmitters in Iran that could broadcast signals into Azerbaijan.
The only way that Baku can prevent Iran’s strong TV and radio signals from coming in would be to set up more transmitters along the border that would use the same frequencies. Alternatively, Tehran could decrease the signal strength of its transmissions, which Baku hopes to achieve through negotiations and the work of the newly established joint commission.
Zarghami’s visit and the signing of the Memorandum come at a time when Iran is facing increasing pressure over its nuclear activities and growing speculation about a possible military attack by the United States.
On the day the Memorandum was signed, Echo ran a story that quoted Israeli newspapers and predicted that an attack against Iran could take place in April 2007. The daily interviewed a local military expert, Uzeyir Jafarov, who said that he also did not rule out the possibility of such an attack in March or April (Echo-Az, February 3).
While most of these statements remain mere speculation, Iran’s recent test of its anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and tough statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reveal uneasiness on the part of Tehran. Iranian leaders continue to strengthen their traditional alliances (i.e. with Russia) and want to improve relations with Iran’s immediate neighbors, whose stability and neutrality are becoming critically important for domestic national security.
That is why Tehran has been actively seeking resolutions of outstanding issues with Azerbaijan, which Western experts believe could be a potential launching pad for an anti-Iranian military campaign.
Zarghami’s visit to Azerbaijan is likely to be followed with visits by other senior-level Iranian officials, who will continue to woo Baku and keep it happy for as long as possible. In the meantime, Baku will seek to use this opportunity to resolve other unsettled issues with Iran, especially the legal status of the Caspian Sea.