NEW fighting between Azeris and Armenians over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan has forced tens of thousands of Azeri refugees into Iran and could prompt Tehran to intervene directly in the conflict.
Armenian forces reportedly seized the last strongholds of Azeri troops in southwestern Azerbaijan over the weekend. The United Nations estimates that 60,000 people have been displaced in several days of fighting.
More than 20,000 Azeri refugees have fled into northern Iran, and hundreds more have drowned while trying to cross the Aras River that forms the border. The new influx will add to Iran's already huge refugee burden, analysts say. Tehran still houses roughly 2 million Afghan refugees - some have stayed for 15 years - and Iraqi Shiites who escaped President Saddam Hussein's purges. Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani traveled to Azerbaijan last week for talks on the refugee crisis.
Tehran does not want to take in a large number of new refugees, not least because of the financial burden and sanitation problems in camps along the border, says a specialist on Iran in London. Some 20 million Iranian citizens - one-third of Iran's total population - are ethnic Azeris. Iranian Azeris feel that Tehran has leaned too far toward Armenia as a de facto ally against Turkish influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Iranian Azeris have recently demanded more minority rights, while Azeri nationalists on both sides of the border have called for unification. If Azeri refugees continue to stream across the border - as UN officials in Baku expect they will - then Iran may be tempted to intervene in the Karabakh dispute.
Western diplomats contacted by telephone in Tehran said Mr. Rafsanjani is under pressure from parliament. ``Some factions - from both sides of the political divide - want a more principled stand for Iran in this conflict,'' one diplomat said. ``They want Armenia more clearly condemned.''
UN officials in Baku reported that Armenian forces have seized Azeri towns along the Iranian border. The Iranian Foreign Ministry has warned the Armenians that it will not tolerate fighting so close to its border. Reports in September suggested that Iran had massed troops along the frontier.
Tehran brokered a cease-fire between Azerbaijan and the Karabakh Armenians in 1992, but it proved short-lived. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe has since proved no more adept at solving the six-year dispute.