As Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev prepares to visit the United States at the end of April, several high-ranking officials from Azerbaijan have already toured Washington and explored ways to strengthen U.S.-Azerbaijan relations.
On March 29, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan Araz Azimov arrived in Washington to participate in the next round of the U.S.-Azerbaijan security dialogue. Bilateral cooperation on security in the Caspian region began in 1996 and has intensified considerably since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Azimov, who headed the interagency delegation from Azerbaijan, was accompanied by Azerbaijan’s deputy minister of national security, Fuad Iskenderov; the deputy chief of State Border Services, Farhad Tagizade; and the commander-in-chief of the Azerbaijani Navy, Shahin Sultanov (AzerTag, March 31).
Azimov met with Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs John Hillen, who represented the U.S. delegation. Officials from both states discussed “a wide range of security and defense issues, and highlighted the joint commitment to increased cooperation [between Baku and Washington]” (State Department statement, March 31).
In his interview with the Azerbaijan state news agency AzerTag, Azimov highlighted the main issues discussed during his talks, including the “security of Azerbaijan at national and regional levels, relations within NATO, the increasing role of the OSCE in the South Caucasus, settlement of regional conflicts, relations among the Caspian coastal states, and the military-political situation in the Caspian basin” (AzerTag, March 31).
On March 30, Azimov delivered a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and talked about the Karabakh peace process, Azerbaijan’s energy and security policies, and its Euro-Atlantic agenda.
Asked whether Iran was a subject of discussions, he reminded, “Some 130-km long section of the Azerbaijan-Iran border is currently under Armenian occupation and outside of Azerbaijan’s control, which is a serious security threat.” In addition, Azimov stated that Iran’s recent activities in the southern sector of the Caspian Sea, which Azerbaijan shares with Iran, worried official Baku. As for the Iranian nuclear program, he stressed that Azerbaijan supports a peaceful resolution of the issue (AzerTag, March 31).
Following Azimov’s visit, the Minister Foreign Affairs Elmar Mammadyarov arrived in Washington on April 7. Mammadyarov also met with high-ranking U.S. officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In his speech at Heritage Foundation on Friday, April 7, Mammadyarov described Azerbaijan as a “strategic ally” of the United States and listed Azerbaijan’s economic achievements in the last 15 years.
Deepening U.S.-Azerbaijan relations “corresponds to our national interest” and Baku and Washington “are working quite successfully” in this direction Mammadyarov remarked. He also mentioned the successful cooperation between the United States and Azerbaijan in the energy and security field, pointing to the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas pipelines and two radar stations in Azerbaijan (Heritage.org, April 7).
Mammadyarov told Jamestown that soon Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey would begin construction of another strategically important project, the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway. This project will connect Trans-European and Trans-Asian railway networks and will allow Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states to ship their goods and products to Turkey and onward to Europe by rail.
One of the central components of the U.S.-Azerbaijan security dialogue has been the Karabakh peace process. The February meeting of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in France resulted in a deadlock and produced no results. Although the OSCE co-chairs for the Karabakh peace process remain optimistic about a possible breakthrough in 2006, the failure of talks in Paris stressed the need for new proposals.
After meeting with Rice, Mammadyarov stated that Washington had made him a “very interesting” proposal for resolution of the Karabakh conflict. He added that the Azerbaijani government would consider the U.S. proposal and would make its position public when U.S. OSCE co-chair Steven Mann visits Baku on April 18 (Day.az, April 8).
The U.S. interest in speeding up the resolution of Karabakh conflict has led the Azerbaijani media and local analysts to question the U.S. role in the region. But official Baku has used Washington’s growing interest in the region as an opportunity to strengthen U.S.-Azerbaijani bilateral relations.
According to Ali Hasanov, head of the socio-political department of presidential administration, “Clearly, the U.S. does not want the resumption of hostilities in the region. We too would like to resolve the Karabakh conflict this year. But the fact is that Armenia still occupies Azerbaijan’s territories and Baku preserves its right to restore its territorial integrity. We want the U.S. and other OSCE Minsk group states to pressure Armenia” (Day.az, April 12).
For Azerbaijan, the return of internally displaced persons to their homes and the question of the country’s territorial integrity continue to play a critical role in the peace talks. Baku hopes that its growing ties with Washington could result in a more favorable peace agreement and change the status quo in the region by ending the Karabakh conflict. Hence, the United States could become a leading player in the Karabakh peace process and U.S.-Azerbaijan strategic relations could further increase U.S. influence in the Caspian region.