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03 05 2007- Iran plays the Azerbaijan card
Middle East - May 3, 2007 (A.M)

By Dmitry Shlapentokh

One might assume that studying US society and revealing its problems is easy because of the lack of censorship. This is absolutely wrong: often one cannot truly understand the US experience without having lived in Maoist China or Soviet Russia.
Indeed, with all the intensity of the conflict between the left and right, they try to preserve decorum in their polemic. This is especially the case with the right; movies that openly attack the left and its sacred shibboleths do not exist.
As in Maoist and Imperial China and Soviet Russia, historical allusions are employed. The recent movie 300 could serve as an example.

Iranians, outraged by the images, declared that the movie was specifically designed to denigrate them; reputable critics stated that what was on the screen ad nothing to do with Greeks and Persians of 500 BC. They both missed the mark:
The goal of the movie was to attack not Iranians but Americans on the left with a Democratic majority in Congress.
Xerxes, the Persian king, was shown decorated with piercings and rings, shaved, and with bizarre attire. He bore no resemblance to the real Persian king but could well be a parody of a leftist punk from New York or California. His sexual ambivalence clearly referred to students in women's and gay and lesbian studies,
Wh proclaim that gender is just who proclaim that gender is just a "discursiveconstruct". Today you are a boy, tomorrow a girl. And deformed Ephialtes, the traitor go-between, could be an allusion to leftists such as the flamboyant academic Ward Churchill, who proposed that some of those who perished on September 11, 2001,
were in some way Nazis. A barb against the left could be seen even in the Persian messenger, the negative figure whom Leonidas pushes into the well. The messenger is black, a travesty for the left, for in most US movies today blacks are positive ; there may be one negative black character, surrounded by positive black characters.
Against these leftist traitors who worked for the enemy, the hardcore neo-conservatives, the patriotic Spartans of the White House, surrounded themselves with shields and fought desperately to save the ungrateful American hoi polloi from themselves. They fought hard, but as their positions deteriorated
their approach changed. For the victorious leaders in previous movies on the West's confrontation with East, the brain is a luxury.

Agile Achilles or indomitable Alexander could crush enemies by might or superb handling of weapons. Yet it became painfully clear with the approach of enemies from the rear (Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Ephialtes -
Professor Churchill - the enemy helpers' "fifth column") that muscle in itself might not be sufficient. So the hard-pressed Spartans in the White House started to engage in sophisticated political games to unsettle the major enemy - Iran.
It is well known that the divided nations formerly within the USSR and Yugoslavia can create permanent stress, as is the case with Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan, the cause of a long war (1988-94) and ongoing tension.
Much less known is Azerbaijan's split between Russia and Iran, which has created a potentially explosive situation in the event of conflict between Iran and the United States.

Northern Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century after Iran was defeated by Russia. For Russians, that war was mostly about acquiring new territory - a rather small and at the time unimportant place. If average Russians remember it, that is because of literature, not geopolitics.
The man sent to Tehran after the peace treaty was Aleksandr Griboyedov, a classical Russian writer whose play Woe from Wit was included in the high-school curriculum. His death in Tehran at the hands of a mob resulted in the Iranian government giving the Shah Diamond to Czar Nicholas I as appeasement. The diamond is still in the Kremlin, one of the most important state treasures.

Azerbaijan had not played much of a role in Russian history except as a source of oil and the violent clashes between Azeris and Armenians. After the Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917-21), Azerbaijan was incorporated into the USSR as a Soviet republic. It emerged as an important player after World War II when part of Iran was occupied by the Soviet army.

The army did not leave, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin inspired the Iranian Azeris to rise against Tehran, planning to unify it with Soviet Azerbaijan as had been done with the parts of Poland populated by ethnic Ukrainians and Belorussians.
There was a strong US response, and Stalin ended the attempt.
After the collapse of the USSR, Azerbaijan engaged in a prolonged war with Armenia and a period of internal turmoil. It maneuvered between its much larger neighbors Russia and Iran, and, of course, among world players such as the US, to which it gravitated more and more - at least until recently. The US tried to use this connection to stir up ethnic Azeris in Iran, emboldening them to dream about unification with their brethren in the north.
Their assertiveness became clear last year, when some delegates at the International Congress of Azerbaijan proposed that Azerbaijan constituted a divided people who should be united. This spring a leading Azerbaijani newspaper,
Mirror, published an article with a strong anti-Iranian statement and the platform of the Party for National Independence of Azerbaijan, which attacks Iran for alleged mistreatment of Iranian Azeris.
The statements led to a strong response by Iranian officials, who reminded Baku that it once belonged to Iran and could be returned. Iran also re-emphasized its good relationship with Armenia, which Azerbaijan regards as its historical enemy.

Then suddenly the Iran-Azerbaijan relationship dramatically improved. Last month it was announced that the Iranian minister of transportation would visit Azerbaijan. Baku deported activists of the Movement for National Awakening of Southern Azerbaijan, and there are discussions about ending visa requirements for citizens of Azerbaijan and Iran who visit each other's country. At the same time, Azerbaijan unexpectedly lodged an official protest over the US approach to Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan regards as occupied by Armenia.
One might wonder about the reason for these changes. Perhaps not only Americans but also some Azeri elite watch 300 Spartans and compare present-day Americans with 5th-century-BC Greeks. They might compare the poorly paid and treated American soldiers not to Spartans but to Athenians. In fact, influential New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that shrewd Themistocles, not courageous but rather simple-minded Leonidas, is needed to save the country.
Other columnists have suggested that Americans should compare themselves to democratic Athenians. In fact, the Spartans seem to them more like a bunch of Nazis. This comparison was quite possibly noted by the Azeri elite, who certainly recall the fate of Themistocles, who saved Athens. Ostracized and fearing for his life, he asked for asylum from the Persians against whom he had fought, and was treated well by them. And this was possibly why the Azeri elite - understanding that the Americans would easily sell them out over even minor problems - decided not to irritate Tehran, spoiling the US chance to use the Azebaijan card in the standoff with Iran.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles (2005).
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