- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

Today is the 10th anniversary of a landmark agreement that changed the geopolitical landscape of the Caspian Sea region forever and gave America access to huge oil reserves previously under total control of the Soviet Union.

After a decade, the relationship between the contractual parties should remain a U.S. foreign policy priority.

The agreement signed on this date in 1994 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was a simple one between the government of Azerbaijan and Foreign Oil Cos. for developing three giant oil fields — Azeri, Chirag and Guneshli. Production from the 6 billion barrels of reserves in these fields will be shipped through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline directly to the Mediterranean Sea. From there the oil will be shipped to Western markets, including ports on the U.S. East Coast. The Caspian Sea region is home to 10 percent of the world’s remaining oil reserves.

From the beginning, Azerbaijan wanted to be a friend of America — the world’s sole remaining superpower — and America needed access to non-Middle Eastern oil reserves. But concluding this agreement was most difficult given prevailing circumstances at the time. Azerbaijan was at war with neighboring Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh. Twenty percent of its landmass was under occupation and approximately 1 million of its 7 million citizens were refugees.

The people of Azerbaijan had only enjoyed independence from the Soviet Union for three years, during which the country witnessed serious political and economic dislocation due to the Soviet collapse. A further obstacle to signing this agreement was the total opposition of Russia and Iran. This agreement was seen as a threat to their national security because it allowed American oil companies to work in their backyards.

Only the vision, courage and political skills of Heydar Aliev, former President of Azerbaijan, enabled this landmark agreement to be signed. Heydar Aliev was a former member of the Politburo turned Azeri patriot, who successfully led his country to de facto sovereign independence by not allowing either Russia to the north or Iran to the south to interfere with his country’s affairs.

Heydar Aliev realized very early that U.S.-Azerbaijan interests were mutually reinforcing: uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of Caspian Sea oil and natural gas to international markets; peaceful resolution of the lingering Nagorno-Karabagh conflict; limiting the influence of radical Islam in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region; and fighting the global war on terrorism. Mr. Aliev saw no conflict between Azerbaijan’s Muslim heritage and a secular government.He frequently said, “Islam is our faith and belongs in our hearts and in our deeds but not on the streets and in our politics.”

He was one of the first world leaders to offer immediate assistance to the United States after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Mr. Aliev offered immediate right to overfly Azerbaijan to U.S. military aircraft flying to Afghanistan.

Azerbaijan voted for all the U.N. resolutions in support of the United States. Working closely with U.S. law-enforcement agencies, Azerbaijan identified and arrested 30 very dangerous terrorists who had entered Azerbaijan. A decade of friendship and cooperation explains the presence of Azerbaijani troops beside American forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

This legacy of friendship, cooperation and support has been passed on to Mr. Aliev’s son, Ilham Aliev (elected president of Azerbaijan by a significant majority this past year), who vows to continue his father’s policies. The U.S., in turn, owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Azerbaijan and its people for opening their hearts, despite tremendous obstacles, to maintain their end of a bargain with America that started in 1991 when oil contract negotiations began.

Unfortunately, Washington has not always upheld its end of this critical friendship. While both Presidents Clinton and Bush have understood the importance of Azerbaijan’s contributions to regional energy security, Congress has turned its back on America’s best ally, friend and working partner in the former Soviet Union. Congress has failed miserably to appreciate the geopolitical importance of Azerbaijan.

Regardless who wins the elections in November, the U.S. has an obligation to uphold this legacy of friendship and cooperation by immediately taking the following corrective initiatives:

(1) Congress must permanently remove Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act that treats Azerbaijan as an enemy worse than North Korea and has been in effect since 1991. (Beginning after September 11, 2001, President Bush has had to waive Section 907 each year for Azerbaijan to be treated as America’s friend and receive any direct U.S. assistance.)

(2) Given Azerbaijan’s strategic location as the gateway to Caspian Sea oil, Congress must appropriate funds for increased military cooperation between Azerbaijan and America.

(3) Make the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict a priority of American diplomacy. Resumption of this conflict can negatively affect the flow of oil to the United States.

(4) Invite the new president of Azerbaijan to the U.S. to thank him for staunchly supporting America’s war on terrorism.

In conclusion, America has a strong ally just north of the Middle East that has been taken for granted for too long. America has been asking its friends to stand up and be counted. We might consider doing the same.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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