SOBHANI: AN AMERICAN FRIEND
S. Rob Sobhani
Monday, September 29, 2008
Azerbaijan stands against Islamists
The fifth-floor office of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev,
offers a breathtaking view of the Caspian Sea. In the distance,
beyond the oil platforms that are turning this nation of 8 million
into a rising energy powerhouse, lies a resurgent Russia. As the
United States struggles for ways to counter Russia’s invasion of
Azerbaijan’s neighbor Georgia, Washington should consider elevating the
U.S. relationship with Azerbaijan into a broader partnership. Within
this increasingly important geostrategic region, Azerbaijan is by far
the most stable nation, and it has acted with utmost responsibility
toward its neighbors, despite legitimate historic grievances.
Eighteen years ago, Soviet troops entered Baku to put down the nascent
movement for freedom and independence under the guise of "combating
Islamic fundamentalism." On that bloody January afternoon in 1990
all hopes for this secular Muslim nation seemed to have died.
Today, Azerbaijan is a vibrant, independent state, raising itself
from the ashes of the totalitarian Soviet system to make the arduous
transition to democracy. The challenges this young country has faced
include preserving its independence from neighboring Iran and Russia
and dealing with economic dislocation and unemployment. Others range
from a lack of exposure to democratic institutions and an independent
judiciary to the lack of infrastructure for transporting its natural
resources to world markets. In addition, there is Section 907 of the
Freedom Support Act that prevented any direct U.S. assistance to
Azerbaijan. Baku also seeks a peaceful solution to the continuing
conflict with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh and a
way to relocate 1 million citizens internally displaced as a result
of the war with Armenia.
Throughout these difficult years, and despite Section 907, Azerbaijan
has remained a steadfast friend and ally of the United States. This
partnership strengthened after the tragic events of September 11,
2001, because of shared goals and values.
When President Bush said, "You are either with us or against us,"
Azerbaijan’s response was unwavering: "We are with you." Hours after
the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Azerbaijan’s
late president, Heydar Aliyev, invited the U.S. ambassador to
his office to express his condolences and offer his country’s
full support. Today, Azerbaijan stands with America in the global
war on terrorism. Its troops are serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and
Kosovo. Azerbaijan is also cooperating with the United States to choke
off funding for terrorists. U.S. military aircraft have the right to
fly over the territory of Azerbaijan to accomplish their missions in
Afghanistan, and they also can land in Azerbaijan.
The uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of
Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves to international markets is a
goal shared by both Baku and Washington. The BTC pipeline connects
the Mediterranean with the heretofore landlocked but energy-rich
Caspian Sea. In addition, Turkey, Greece and Italy have signed an
agreement to import natural gas from Azerbaijan. Thus, the flow of
oil and natural gas from the region to international markets allows
for a diversification of world energy supplies. The transformation
of Azerbaijan into the main transport corridor of the region has
elevated the strategic significance of this country.
The notion of religious tolerance is another factor that binds the
two counties together. Mr. Aliyev, 47, sees no conflict between
Azerbaijan’s Shi’ite Muslim identity and a secular government. He
points out that, "Islam is our faith and is firmly rooted in our
hearts and in our deeds but not on the streets and in our politics." A
firm dedication to secularism has enabled Azerbaijan to maintain
diplomatic relations with Israel despite pressure from Iran’s
Islamic regime to cut off its ties to the Jewish state. Religious
minorities in Azerbaijan are able to practice their faith in their
houses of worship free from any harassment. In short, Azerbaijan has
not allowed its Muslim heritage to be hijacked by clerics and turned
into an instrument of destruction.
When John McCain or Barack Obama becomes America’s 44th president,
entering into a "strategic grand bargain" with the small but strategic
country of Azerbaijan in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region should be a
top foreign-policy priority. Specifically, the next president should
make the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict a priority of
American diplomacy. The United States should use its good will to
bring Armenia to the negotiating table for a final settlement of this
conflict – resumption of which can negatively affect the flow of oil
to the United States from the Caspian Sea region.
While it is important for Washington to support Georgia, long-term
U.S. interests call for entering into strategic alliances with stable
countries and responsible leaders. Azerbaijan is one such country.
S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting.