- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

When President Bush sits down today with the president of Azerbaijan at the White House, he will be meeting with the leader of an oil-rich Muslim nation that was one of the first to join the United States in the war against international terrorism. When Mr. Bush said, "You are either with us or against us," Azerbaijan's response was unwavering: "We are with you."

The day after tragedy struck America, President Heydar Aliev invited the U.S. ambassador to his office and offered his country's immediate and unconditional support. As the only Muslim member of the Soviet politburo, Mr. Aliev was very much aware of the dangers radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden could pose to the free world and wanted to help America fight back.

First, Mr. Aliev offered immediate right of overflight of Azerbaijan's territory for American military aircraft flying to Afghanistan. Second, the Pentagon also was allowed to temporarily station NATO-based U.S. troops on Azerbaijan territory. American troops were received with open arms and the hospitality that Azerbaijanis are famous for. Third, Azerbaijan voted for all the U.N. resolutions in support of the United States. Fourth, the Azerbaijan government has worked with the U.S. Treasury Department to put in place stringent mechanisms to detect money transfers to terrorist groups. For example, Azerbaijan authorities were able to freeze the accounts of Benevolence International, the so-called Muslim charity that until recently was a financier of terrorism.

Fifth, working closely with U.S. law-enforcement agencies, Azerbaijan extradited 30 very dangerous terrorists from Azerbaijan. Since then, it has provided valuable intelligence on the activities of radical Islamic groups operating in the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan also is assuming its mantel of sovereign responsibility by fielding its soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the peacekeeping effort to rebuild that war-torn country.

The friendship that Azerbaijan has extended to the United States goes far beyond cooperation in the war against terrorism. Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has been a consistent and staunch ally of the United States in an increasingly important region of the world. This South Carolina-sized country of 7 million is a littoral state of the Caspian Sea, home to approximately 10 percent of the world's remaining oil reserves.

While certainly not in the same league as the Persian Gulf, a fundamental premise of U.S. foreign policy has been the uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of Caspian Sea oil to international markets. The linchpin of this policy has been the Baku-Tbilisi-Cehyan (BTC) pipeline running from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. While many referred to this multibillion-dollar project connecting the Caspian Sea to the Med as a "pipe dream," Mr. Aliev's leadership and determination have made BTC a reality. By the year 2005, oil from the Caspian Sea may very well end up at refineries on the East Coast.

Although Azerbaijan is a Shi'a Muslim nation, its government has striven to retain a secular character. The desire to maintain a secular society, coupled with Azerbaijan's pro-American (and pro-Israel) stance, has created tension with its neighbor to the south, the Islamic Republic of Iran. This tension has been manifested in many ways. One of the more overtly threatening challenges came when Iranian gunboats and aircraft forced work to stop on the giant Alov oil project in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea. The Alov project, operated by British Petroleum on behalf of Azerbaijan (U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil is also a partner), is the world's largest undrilled structure, with possible reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil (total U.S. reserves stand at 28 billion). Despite such strong-arm tactics by the ayatollahs of Iran, however, Mr. Aliev has stood firm, reiterating that although Azerbaijan is a Muslim nation, it will remain secular and will not bow to pressure from Iran.

What can Mr. Bush offer his ally in the war on terrorism in return?

• Take a more robust U.S. diplomatic effort to end the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. This conflict, if left unchecked, can damage any U.S. hope of bringing Caspian oil and gas to international markets.

• Begin negotiations for a small but permanent U.S. airbase in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's strategic location as the gateway to Central Asia, the immediate neighbor north of Islamic Iran and the hub of oil and gas transports from the Caspian makes it an ideal location for the U.S. to project power in this increasingly important but volatile part of the world.

• Put pressure on the ayatollahs in Iran to stop their aggressive behavior towards Azerbaijan.

• Ask the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to fund a major study of Azerbaijan's agriculture industry. Azerbaijan has some of the world's richest soils, and its fruits are renown for their excellent flavor. Helping to create a diverse economy will ensure the growth a middle class and constitute the building blocks of a viable democracy.

Under the leadership of Mr. Aliev, Azerbaijan has made the transition from a former Soviet republic to a friend and ally of Washington. Azerbaijan deserves to be applauded for this transformation, and America should reward its friend.

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

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