- - Tuesday, December 10, 2013

At the end of this month, Azerbaijan will conclude its first-ever term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This elected role as the representative for Eastern European nations underscores an important transformation over the past two decades. Today, Azerbaijan is an increasingly influential leader in the Caucasus region.

Azerbaijan’s continued recognition on the world stage is especially advantageous for the United States, given our two countries’ mutual interests. We share serious concerns about a nuclear Iran and a more assertive Russia. We also seek a safer and more prosperous world, where terrorists are on the run and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is on the decline.

America swiftly saw Azerbaijan’s steadfast commitment to fight terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Azerbaijan extended an early pledge of support for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, granting overflight rights and later dispatching troops to serve alongside American soldiers. Now, stabilization efforts in Afghanistan are bolstered by Azerbaijan’s strategic location for transporting supplies by land, sea, and air. More than a third of the equipment sent to U.S. troops in Afghanistan flies over or moves through the capital city of Baku. In keeping with its pledge to combat terrorism, Azerbaijan has promised aid to support Afghanistan’s security forces even after NATO troops are scheduled to withdraw next year.

The United States is fortunate to have a stable ally in the Caspian region with a consistent track record of cooperation. Although many agree that additional steps are needed for democratic reform in the post-Soviet nation, it is encouraging that Azerbaijan has emerged from decades of communist rule on a path toward economic prosperity and freedom.

Along the way, it has become a prominent energy provider that understands the need to diversify energy routes and resources to our European allies, who are often constrained by an over-reliance on energy from Russia. New gas pipelines through Baku reaffirm Azerbaijan’s expanding leadership within the global energy market and enable our NATO allies to tap into energy resources not controlled by the Kremlin.

I join my colleagues from both political parties in hoping these successes continue and that bilateral cooperation deepens. As U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar said during his confirmation last June, the “wide range of shared interests” between the United States and Azerbaijan “intersects with many of the United States’ highest foreign policy priorities.”

Given this productive partnership, it is disappointing that the Obama Administration largely panned the recent election of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev while extoling the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran. Unlike neighboring Azerbaijan, which has worked to build diplomatic ties with the West and respects democratic ideals, Iran has made no secret of its hostility toward the United States and ambition to become a nuclear power. One would expect America’s allies to receive warmer treatment than our adversaries, despite legitimate concerns about the fairness of the recently held elections in both countries.

As a co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which oversees America’s commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), I had the opportunity to visit the Caspian region earlier this year and meet with President Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. I am hopeful that Azerbaijan will continue to advance its relationship with the OSCE under their leadership as it prepares to host the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly next year.

As a dynamic and modern state at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Azerbaijan is a critical ally worthy of the United States’ continued support and attention. Although its path toward democracy is not everything we had hoped for, the development of democratic principles promises to enhance U.S. security and that of other free countries throughout the world.

• Roger Wicker represents the state of Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. He is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.