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May 30, 2017

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Iran crisis stirs tensions in ex-Soviet Union Caucasus

TBILISI, Georgia -- Thwarted attacks on Israelis in Tbilisi and Baku. Friction between Azerbaijan and its giant neighbor Iran. Fears of a new war over the conflict-bloodied region of Nagorny Karabakh.

As warnings grow of a possible Israeli strike against Iran, the three small south Caucasus ex-Soviet states have become increasingly nervous that open conflict could throw their troubled region into even deeper turmoil.

"As always when relations between the greater powers around the Caucasus are in turmoil, the Caucasus is affected," said Svante Cornell, research director at the Stockholm-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

Georgian police in February said they defused a bomb near the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, part of a series of attack plots that Israel blamed on Iran.

Mainly Muslim but officially secular Azerbaijan has arrested several people over the past two months accused of plotting to attack Israelis in Baku on behalf of Iran and the Islamic radical group Hezbollah.

The alleged plots have provoked speculation in the region that Iran and Israel are acting out a covert conflict on the Islamic republic's borders, deploying spies and recruiting locals as proxies.

The south Caucasus had long been a battleground for influence between Iran, Russia and Turkey, but the fall of the Soviet Union enabled the U.S. and Europe to forge new allegiances where Moscow had dominated for decades.

Criticism of Tehran has escalated in Azerbaijan in recent months, with allegations that Iranians have commissioned bombers, sponsored Muslim extremists and staged cyber-attacks on state websites.

"Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Iran has been trying to export Islamic revolution into Azerbaijan. Iran wants to get its hands on Azerbaijan," Vafa Guluzade, a former Azerbaijani presidential foreign policy adviser, told AFP in Baku.

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