Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev's three-day visit to Washington in late April to discuss economic and regional security issues marked an important step forward in U.S.-Azerbaijan bilateral relations. "My trip to Washington covered all aspects of our relationship," the 44-year old Aliyev said. Seeking to solidify his country's ties to the region, an enthusiastic U.S. President George W. Bush noted, "Azerbaijan is a modern Muslim country that is able to provide for its citizens and understands that democracy is the wave of the future."
President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father Heydar as head of state after his death in 2003, has quickly become a critical U.S. ally, as other nations in the region such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have slowly distanced themselves from Washington. Located between Russia and Iran with a population of 7.8 million people, Azerbaijan has been an important strategic partner in the war on terror, sending troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq. The country has also allowed the use of its territory by the U.S. military, cooperating with the Pentagon to modernize a former Soviet-era airfield and granting permission for U.S. military over flights. Plans were recently announced for the U.S. to modernize one radar station near the Iranian border at Lerik and another near the border with Georgia at Agstafa. Joint work has also commenced on two radar stations on the Russia-Azerbaijani border and Iran-Azerbaijani border to monitor Caspian Sea traffic.
Although bilateral cooperation has accelerated recently, U.S.-Azerbaijan relations are not entirely rosy. Promised political reforms have progressed slowly in Baku, the country's capital, with the U.S. openly criticizing the presidential elections in 2003 and parliamentary polls last year as "seriously flawed." President Aliyev's election was marred by allegations of corruption and brutal crackdowns on his political opposition, drawing some international observers to compare the leader to Belarus strongman President Alexander Lukashenko.
A pending criminal case in New York federal court against an Azerbaijani oil company in which Aliyev served as vice president has also raised questions regarding the president's past. Moreover, president Aliyev's recent bellicose statements concerning his country's deadly conflict with neighbor Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh territory that left 30,000 civilians dead, has raised red flags in Washington.
Domestic problems aside, the energy resources of Azerbaijan have propelled bilateral relations forward. Washington remains determined to reduce its energy reliance on less-friendly governments in the Middle East, Africa and South America. The 1,000 mile long Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which bypasses both Russia and Iran from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, is testimony to the rising importance of the country's energy sector and its ability to play an integral role in U.S. energy security.
According to Azerbaijani government sources, the country's oil reserves range from 7 to 13 billion barrels. Daily oil exports reached 319,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2004 and are expected to reach 1.1 million bpd by 2008. Natural gas reserves are also substantial, estimated at 30 trillion cubic feet (Tcf). Flush with cash, foreign investors are flocking to the country hoping to secure lucrative exploration and development contracts, with investment increasing an astounding 30 percent, or US$4.4 billion, in 2004 alone.
Beyond democratization and energy, the complex issue of Iran drives the current U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship. As a Shia Muslim nation, Azerbaijan shares close ethnic and religious ties with its southern neighbor. As a result, Baku strongly opposes the use of force against Iran in the current nuclear crisis, "Our position has not changed -- the problems should be resolved by diplomatic means," president Aliyev said during his visit to Washington.
Baku's developing relationship with Tehran is an ongoing concern for Washington. During 2005, president Aliyev and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met three times, providing a glimpse of how close the two countries have become. "Relations between the two friendly and fraternal countries are rapidly developing," Aliyev noted in a December meeting with Ahmadinejad in Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani enclave.
Earlier this month, the two leaders met in Baku, with president Ahmadinejad expressing both his desire to increase energy cooperation with Azerbaijan and his growing dissatisfaction with U.S. efforts aimed at halting Iran's nuclear program. To ensure Azerbaijani neutrality and counter U.S. influence, Iran reportedly offered to serve as an export conduit for Azerbaijani oil and gas.
Tehran's early efforts seem to be paying off. Public opinion polls in Azerbaijan show a growing tide of anti-Americanism. "All recent surveys conducted in Azerbaijan show the rise of anti-American moods in Azerbaijan society," noted Arif Yunusov, head of the Conflict Prevention Department at the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy.
Azerbaijan's increased contact with Iran could place the country in a difficult position, as the U.N. Security Council considers punitive measures such as economic sanctions or even military action. In essence, Baku's position of non-interference on the Iran nuclear issue gives Washington little room for geopolitical maneuvering. The country's strategic importance during any military conflict with Iran should not be underestimated. Azerbaijan shares a 370 mile border with Iran, and successfully sealing it would be an important first step to stem the transport of necessary supplies and weapons to Iran. "One concern is to keep Azerbaijan on board regardless of the administration's policy toward Iran, because Iran is a neighboring state," noted Dr. Martha Britt Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Azerbaijan offers the U.S. a number of attractive strategic options during a perilous time in world history. The Bush administration remains committed to maintaining a significant economic, political and military presence in the region to offset possible Iranian aggression. However, Washington must be careful when making regional alliances to address emerging threats, otherwise, ambitious leaders like president Aliyev could initiate a dangerous game of political gamesmanship resulting in regional chaos, rather than stability.