THE Soviet and Iranian governments have moved quickly to address ethnic unrest in the border region of Nakhichevan in Soviet Azerbaijan. A week after local residents began tearing down border fences, officials from Moscow were on the scene. According to Iran's news agency IRNA, the two countries signed an agreement last Friday that would facilitate travel between Soviet Azerbaijan - which administers the Nakhichevan autonomous republic - and Iran. On Saturday, an Iranian Foreign Ministry delegation came to Moscow to discuss the matter.
The Nakhichevan flare-up is the first time a Soviet border has been attacked by its own citizens and is the latest case of nationalism to occupy Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's crowded agenda. Mr. Gorbachev has postponed meetings with foreign politicians because of his domestic troubles. He heads for the Baltic republic of Lithuania tomorrow to discuss the decision by the local Communist Party to break away from Moscow's control.
The rampage on the Soviet-Iranian border began on New Year's Eve, when demonstrators started to rip down barbed wire fences, electrical equipment, and watch towers. Over several days, 113 miles of the border were destroyed, but the situation has now calmed down, says Villy Zeinalov, a local Communist Party official contacted yesterday in Nakhichevan.
The region, including the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, was closed last Thursday to foreign journalists, and information has been sketchy. Local Communist officials, who express sympathy for the demonstrators' position, cite two reasons for the riots:
More contact with their cultural brothers in northern Iran, which Azeris call ``Southern Azerbaijan'' - harking back to the period before 1920, when Russia gained control of what is now Soviet Azerbaijan. Iranian and Soviet Azeris share the same religion, Shiite Islam, and speak the same language.
``To these people, this border is every bit as illegitimate as the Berlin Wall,'' says Rashid Kaplanov, a researcher at the Institute of World History here, who notes that Soviet television provided steady coverage of the Berlin Wall's opening. ``The difference is that the West German government is all too ready to promote such links. ... Iran doesn't want to foster Azeri nationalism.''
The Soviet Azeris say they do not want to emigrate to Iran - indeed, they live better than their Iranian cousins. And local officials report that most Azeri-Iranian people-to-people contact has so far consisted of meeting and talking near the border.
A desire to free up the 6,640 square miles of fertile no man's land between the border fences and the actual border, which runs down the middle of the Araks River. The Nakhichevanians say they need this land for crops and cattle. Also, the influx of Azeri refugees from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has boosted demand for good farm land.
According to Mr. Zeilanov, the Nakhichevan official, discussions are taking place in Moscow to move the border to the Araks. ``I think the answer will be positive,'' he says.
The stated reasons for attacking the border fences may, however, be in part a camouflage for overall tension in this Azerbaijani enclave of 300,000 people separated from the rest of the republic by Armenian territory. Beginning in late July, rail links have been periodically disrupted between Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan, presumably by Armenians retaliating over the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh - the predominantly Armenian territory inside Azerbaijan.
In general, Azerbaijan has seen a decline of law and order. The latest example came late last month in the town of Dzhalilabad, just 15 miles from the Iranian border. Demonstrators there laid siege to local Communist Party headquarters, demanding removal of corrupt officials. There has been no demonstrated link between this incident and Nakhichevan, but some analysts suggest the overall rise of lawlessness may have helped inspire the Nakhichevan rioters.
Sergei Arutyunov, a researcher at Moscow's Institute of Ethnography, says he thinks the divided families issue is a false front. Northern and southern Azerbaijan, after all, have been divided for 70 years and therefore direct family ties have weakened considerably.
``It's more a matter of people feeling general frustration over social conditions'' such as poor food supplies, says Dr. Arutyunov. ``People needed a way to channel their anger, and Islamic fanatics have artificially fanned up this feeling.''
Nakhichevan demonstrators were reportedly shouting Allahu Akhbar (``God is great'') and slogans about the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini across the border to the Iranians. In general, however, Islamic fundamentalism has not been viewed as strong in Soviet Azerbaijan, and Soviet officials have not expressed concern that Iran-style fanaticism could spill into Azerbaijan.
In fact, border-guard officials on the Soviet side of the Nakhichevan incident have reacted more calmly than their Iranian counterparts. Several days after the unrest began, the Soviets sent in additional border troops and armored personnel carriers, but they reportedly lay low.
``The Soviet government is really very patient, in spite of the fact that it's a flagrant violation of the law,'' says Arutyunov.
The Nakhichevan incident may also help Soviet-Iranian relations, which have a history of ups and downs - and have been on an upswing lately.
Since neither government is interested in a rise of nationalism among Azeris, who are a minority in Iran, the two countries can cooperate to keep the situation calm.