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Azerbaijanis Pressured by Iran to Cut Israel, West Ties, Official Says

Iran is pressuring Azerbaijan to cut ties with Israel and Western nations as tensions mount over the Persian Gulf state's nuclear program, an aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's said.

"Iran is telling us to sever our relationships with Israel and the West," which is unacceptable to Azerbaijan, Ali Hasanov, Head of the Social and Political Department of the Presidential Office, told reporters in the capital Baku. 

Iran is behind a "serious anti-Azerbaijan" campaign, trying to create a rift between the oil-rich former Soviet republic and its allies before the Eurovision Song Contest that starts tomorrow in Baku, Hasanov said.

Azeri officials have sought to ease Iranian concerns about plans to buy Israeli drones and missile-defense systems valued at $1.6 billion, with Hasanov saying in March the weapons are intended to strengthen the country's defense capability because of its conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Companies led by London-based BP Plc have invested about $33 billion in Azerbaijan's and gas fields since 1994.

Foreign Policy magazine reported in March that the Caspian Sea nation, which shares a 756-kilometer (470-mile) border with Iran, had offered some of its airports to Israel for possible air strikes against Iran, citing unnamed U.S. intelligence agents. Azerbaijan and Israel have rejected the report.

"There are 30 million Azeris living in Iran," Hasanov said. A possible "bombing of Iran would be like bombing of Azerbaijan." 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.

Officials from the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., France and Germany, the so-called P5+1 group, plan to hold talks with Iranian counterparts in Baghdad on May 23 in a bid to curb Iran's nuclear activities. Iran says it needs nuclear energy for civilian purposes, while the U.S. and others are concerned the Islamic republic may be seeking weapons technology.

The European Union plans to impose an oil embargo beginning July 1 and Israel hasn't ruled out attacking Iranian nuclear installations unless it stops enriching uranium. Some countries favor more than ever using a military strike to stem Iran's nuclear ambitions, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters.

Iran is also seeking to impose its version of Islam on Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani official said.

"We have our own model" of Islam "and everybody knows it," Hasanov said.

Thousands of Iranians demonstrated outside the Azeri consulate in the northwestern city of Tabriz and other parts of the country in the past few weeks. The annual Eurovision music contest, which draws an estimated audience of 125 million television viewers, is the world's most watched singing competition.

Source: Bloomberg

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