Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s April 25-28 visit to Washington — his first as chief of state since 2003 — was a long overdue event for the president of a country allied to the United States and key to energy supplies to the West.
On the White House lawn following their 45-minute meeting, U.S. President George W. Bush twice named Azerbaijan and its president as “our ally.” Citing Azerbaijan’s contributions to U.S.-led and NATO operations in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan and its role in Caspian energy deliveries, Bush also invoked a “need for the world to see a modern Muslim country … that understands that democracy is the wave of the future.” Aliyev in turn expressed confidence in the “strength of our strategic partnership” and his country’s “high level of trust in the United States.” With U.S.-supported multinational energy projects now coming on stream in Azerbaijan, the country posted a world-record GDP growth of 26% in 2005 and is set to at least match that rate this year.
In an extensive briefing for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and an address to the conference of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Aliyev focused on three main issues for his country: energy transit (see EDM, May 1), the Karabakh conflict, and — responding to persistent questions — Azerbaijan’s position regarding possible U.S. strikes against Iran’s suspected nuclear installations.
Defining the Karabakh conflict as “the major problem facing Azerbaijan,” Aliyev called for its resolution based on international law and territorial integrity as non-negotiable principles. A stage-by-stage resolution process would ultimately permit the opening of transport communications and enable Armenia to join regional development projects. Azerbaijan cannot accept Armenia into such projects as long as Armenian forces occupy Azerbaijan’s territory.
Meanwhile, Section 907 of the U.S. Freedom Support Act adopted by Congress in the context of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war in 1992 bars direct assistance to Azerbaijan from the U.S. government. Section 907 hits the wrong target, Azerbaijan, ignoring the seizure and ethnic cleansing of part of its territory by Armenian forces. The Bush administration obtains annual congressional waivers of this section since 2002, in recognition of Azerbaijan’s contributions to the anti-terror coalition; but the section remains in force. In his meetings with Congressional leaders, Aliyev urged repeal of this absurd piece of legislation. The response on Capitol Hill was sympathetic, but one of the key figures involved ruefully noted that to repeal section 907 it would first be necessary to “repeal politics in Washington.”
Media speculation about Azerbaijan’s possible role in U.S. operations against Iran provided a constant distraction during the visit. Presumably, Bush intended to ask for Azerbaijan’s support in some form; and Aliyev’s meetings with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte fed further speculation. Aliyev, however, repeatedly and unambiguously stated that Azerbaijan would not become involved in any kind of military operations against Iran, but favored a diplomatic solution ensuring that Iran would not acquire nuclear weapons. He alluded to the risk for Azerbaijan should Baku end up in the crossfire: “For us, this is not a remote issue of the kind you see on TV and can switch off to another channel.” Aliyev and his minister of foreign affairs, Elmar Mammadyarov, also cited Iran’s role in providing transit and energy supplies to Azerbaijan’s isolated exclave Nakhichevan; and referred as well to a bilateral treaty stipulating that neither country shall allow hostile actions from its territory against the other.
Aliyev’s demurral over Iran, however genuine, is not necessarily the final word on the matter. It still allows for deniable support to the United States in a crisis; and it certainly does not preclude intelligence support, which is believed to be ongoing. International economic sanctions against Iran, however, would confront Azerbaijan with the dilemma of either cooperating with the sanctions or risking Iranian retaliation that could at a minimum include a blockade of Nakhichevan.
Concluding the presidents’ meeting on the final day of the visit, Bush told the press that they merely “touched on” the issue of Iran and that both favored a diplomatic solution. Bush did not mention a possible military option on this occasion. For his part, Aliyev stated that his country will continue standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States in Iraq and is prepared to undertake “additional steps” if necessary in Afghanistan.
(Federal News Service, April 26; ANS, ATV, Trend, Turan, April 25-29)