Tiny Azerbaijan unleashes pop-power against Iran’s mullahs


BAKU, Azerbaijan — The latest weapon in this country’s ideological war with Iran arrived late last month in an armada of jets from California, accompanied by a private security force, dazzling pyrotechnics and a wardrobe that consisted of sequins and not much else.

A crowd of nearly 30,000 gathered to watch as the leader of this mini-invasion pranced onto a stage built on the edge of the Caspian Sea. With a shout of “Hello, lovers!” Jennifer Lopez wiggled out of her skirt and launched into a throbbing disco anthem, delighting her Azerbaijani fans and — it was hoped — infuriating the turbaned ayatollahs who live just across the water.

“You could almost feel the Iranians seething,” said an Azerbaijani official who attended the U.S. pop star’s first concert in this predominantly Shiite Muslim country of 9 million. “This stuff makes them crazy.”

The effect on Iran’s leaders is real enough, and it is at least partly by design. Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor and longtime rival, is coming to relish its role as the region’s anti-Iran, a secular, Western-leaning country that is working mightily to become everything that Iran is not.

As Iran sinks ever deeper into isolation and economic distress, its northern neighbor is sprinting in the opposite direction, building political and cultural ties to the West along with new pipelines connecting energy-hungry Europe with the country’s rich petroleum fields on the Caspian Sea. Where Iran is repressive and theocratic, Azerbaijan is socially and religiously tolerant, offering itself as a model of a nonsectarian, Muslim-majority society that champions women’s athletics and embraces Western music and entertainers.

It also enthusiastically pursues diplomatic and business ties with Israel, the Jewish state that Iranian officials have threatened to destroy.

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