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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The small, central Asian nation of Azerbaijan is in a tough spot. It's found itself caught up in the rising international tensions over neighboring Iran and its nuclear program. Despite historic ties with Iran, Azerbaijan, a former Soviet Republic, has increasingly aligned itself with the West and with Israel.

Sheera Frenkel was recently in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. She sent this report.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: The incident at this soccer match in the Iranian city of Tabriz is still a point of pride in Azerbaijan. In the middle of the match, hundreds of ethnic Azeris in the crowd break out their national flag and begin to chant that the city belongs to them. The video was a big hit in Baku.

It was a rare demonstration by Iran's ethnic Azeri minority, many of whom argue that northern Iran should be part of a greater Azerbaijan, a sentiment that is shared by many here in Baku. And that's not the only point of tension between the two central Asian neighbors.

Recently, Baku and Tehran have traded accusations across border conspiracies and assassinations. Wedged between more powerful neighbors, Russia, Iran and Turkey, Azerbaijan has long served as an East-West meeting ground and something of a den of spies where rival intelligence agents keep a close eye on one another.

Mehman Aliyev is director of the independent news agency Turan. He says that Azerbaijan realizes its position as a kind of listening post.

MEHMAN ALIYEV: (Through Translator) Of course, Azerbaijan is the intersection of many foreign states, whether it's Russia, Iran, Turkey. It's where they mingle and where they obviously collect intelligence.

FRENKEL: Azerbaijan's role was established in the early 1980s when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Soviet military installations were built along the southern border with Iran. In Gabala, an early missile warning system and intelligence base was built by the Russian army and remains in use until today. And the local newspapers say there are also two U.S. military installations now on Azerbaijani territory.

Dr. Arastun Orujlu is a former counter-intelligence officer and the director of the East-West Research Center and Orujlu estimates that thousands of Iranian agents operate in Azerbaijan.

ARASTUN ORUJLU: Intelligence activity of Iran is also very high in Azerbaijan to keep Azerbaijan in this situation of buffer zone between Iran and Russia, between Iran and the West.

FRENKEL: Aliyev says it's long been an open secret that Azerbaijan serves a purpose for Iran and for the West, including Israel, which also has intelligence agents on the ground here.

ALIYEV: (Through Translator) Iran is trying to find out what other military operations of the Western states intended for Iran and, of course, Israel and the west are trying to use the opportunity of being here to find out what is happening in Iran.

FRENKEL: Israel's relationship with Azerbaijan has blossomed in recent years, fueled by lucrative military and business deals. Israel buys 30 percent of its oil from Azerbaijan and recently awarded a lucrative gas drilling contract off its Mediterranean coast to an Azerbaijani firm.

Orujlu says that the ties between Azerbaijanis and Israel have grown so deep that in the event of an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, many here would side with Israel. But some feel that all that could change in the case of an actual war, especially if it included attacks on areas inhabited by Iran's ethnic Azeris.

Ilgar Ibrahimoglu is imam of the Juma mosque in a suburb of Boku with a large Iranian population. He says that phobia of Iran has increasingly encouraged in Azerbaijan.

ILGAR IBRAHIMOGLU: (Through Translator) Every Azerbaijani understands that this war will affect Azeris in Iran and holy sites there.

FRENKEL: The imam says that people here understand that a war in Iran will have repercussions. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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