Azerbaijan Leader Staying Out Of Iran Fray

By Barry Schweid

Washington Post
April 26 2006

WASHINGTON — President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan opened a three-day
visit to the United States on Wednesday by saying he would not
allow his country to be used by the U.S. for any operations against
neighboring Iran.

Aliev, scheduled to meet with President Bush on Friday, cited a
“very clear” agreement with Iran that the two countries would not
permit their territory to be used for operations against the other.

His visit comes at a time of rising U.S. tensions with Iran over its
nuclear program, and Aliev said he would remain at arms’ length from
that conflict.

“Azerbaijan will not be engaged in any kind of potential operation
against Iran,” he said in remarks at the private Council on Foreign

The Caspian nation, which shares a border with Iran and Russia, is
strategically important to the U.S. because of its location and its
role in supplying the West with oil.

Azerbaijan wants to remain an “island of stability” in the region,
Aliev said. At the same time, he said Azerbaijan had sent troops
to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, and would “do its best to stand
shoulder-to-shoulder” with the United States on security.

The president, who took office in October 2003, has the potential to
be an intermediary between the Bush administration and Iran. Iranian
Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar, on a visit to Baku last
week, said Aliev could use his talks in Washington to “explain”
Iran’s views to the United States.

Aliev said he did not think Iran would be a “major aspect” of his
talks in Washington, which are due to include a meeting with Vice
President Dick Cheney. But he said “if the question of regional
security arises we will discuss it.”

Azerbaijan is committed to peace in the region, he said. “We need to
try to provide peace and stability.”

“At this time,” he said, “it is best to concentrate on a peaceful
resolution” of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programs, which the
United States and European allies say seek development of a nuclear

On another issue, Aliev conceded there was need for political reform
in his country, a former Soviet republic that became independent 16
years ago. Referring to Azerbaijan’s energy boom, Aliev said “economic
reform without political reform will lead to severe problems.” He
said his country was moving forward on both fronts.

Human rights groups have criticized the nation for restricting
political and human rights and questioned whether U.S. criticism
would be muted due to Azerbaijan’s role in supplying the West with oil.

Freedom House on Tuesday said Azerbaijan restricts political and human
rights and is among the lowest-ranked countries in the private rights
group’s annual surveys.

“President Bush has made democracy promotion a priority of his
presidency,” Freedom House executive director Jennifer Windsor said
in a statement. “His upcoming meeting with President Aliev presents
an important opportunity for him to discuss Azerbaijan’s democracy

Aliev, in response to questions Wednesday, rejected the description
of his government as a “regime” and said, “We have all the major

In his remarks, Aliev spoke most about a dispute with Armenia over the
Nagorno-Karabakh enclave of Azerbaijian. Ethnic Armenian forces occupy
the region, in what Aliev called an occupation. He said Azerbaijan’s
recovery of the territory was not subject to negotiations.

Photo: Azerbaijani President, then Prime Minister, Ilham Aliev,
speaks to the media in Baku, Azerbaijan, in this Monday, Oct. 13,
2003 file photo. As the starting point for a pipeline that will pump
1 million barrels of oil a day to Western markets, the former Soviet
republic Azerbaijan has long ranked as a strategic foothold for the
United States in the Caspian Sea region. But it’s the shared border
with Iran, where up to 30 million ethnic Azeris live, that has earned
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev an invitation to the White House
this week, analysts say. Aliev leaves Tuesday for a three-day visit on
the invitation of President George W. Bush. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky,
File) (Efrem Lukatsky – AP).

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