- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

When President Bush sits down today with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan he will be meeting one of America’s strongest allies in the war on terror.

Today, under the leadership of Mr. Aliyev, Azerbaijan is a nation of eight million that has raised itself from the ashes of Soviet totalitarianism into a vibrant and pro-Westerndemocracy.The challenges this young country has faced have been many: preserving its independence from neighboring Iran and Russia; the legacy of Soviet-style corruption; no infrastructure for transporting its natural resources to world markets; Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which prevented any direct U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan; finding a peaceful solution to the continuing conflict with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh; and relocating one million citizens internally displaced as a result of the war with Armenia.

Throughout these difficult years, and despite Section 907, Azerbaijan has remained a steadfast ally of the United States. This strategic partnership strengthened after the tragic events of September 11, because the strong ties between Baku and Washington are based on shared goals and values.

When President Bush said, “You are either with us or against us,” Azerbaijan’s response was unwavering: “We are with you.” Hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Azerbaijan’s late president, Heydar Aliev, invited the U.S. ambassador to his office not just to express his condolences but also to offer his country’s full support.

Today, Azerbaijan stands side-by-side with America in the global war on terrorism. Its troops are serving with valor in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. As a testament to the strong cooperation between Azerbaijan and the United States, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has made at least three trips to Azerbaijan since September 11. Indeed, the Pentagon considers the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship a “strategic partnership.”

The uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves to international markets is a goal shared by both Baku and Washington. Last year, the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline was inaugurated, thus connecting the landlocked Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. This geostrategic pipeline will allow the littoral states of the Caspian Sea to export their oil and gas reserves to markets world-wide, thus enhancing global energy security at a time of volatility in the Persian Gulf region.

Religious tolerance is another factor that binds the two counties together. As Mr. Aliyev has pointed out on numerous occasions: “Islam is our faith and is firmly rooted in our hearts and in our deeds but not on the streets and in our politics.” A firm dedication to secularism has enabled Azerbaijan to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel despite pressure from Iran’s Islamic regime to cut its ties to the Jewish state.

Religious minorities in Azerbaijan are able to practice their faith in their houses of worship free from any harassment. In short, Azerbaijan has not allowed its Muslim heritage to be hijacked by clerics and turned into an instrument of hate and destruction. As Washington struggles to figure out how the Muslim countries of the Middle East can balance faith with nation-building, Azerbaijan is quietly proving that Islam and secularism can coexist quite peacefully.

Another equally important value Azerbaijan shares with the United States is its belief in democratic pluralism. Azerbaijan’s transition from a satellite state of the Soviet Union a mere 15 years ago to a democracy allied with the West took another major step forward on November 6, 2005, when the people of Azerbaijan went to the polls to elect their representatives to parliament. While the results seem to have disappointed some members of the international press who were hoping for another “color revolution” in the post-Soviet era, the true winners were the people of Azerbaijan. They did not vote for a revolution; instead they voted for the stability inherent in gradual reform. This, in a nutshell, is the fundamental domestic policy goal of President Aliev.

While the purpose of president Aliyev’s visit to Washington is to build on this legacy of friendship and shared values, two matters need the urgent attention of the United States:

1. The permanent removal of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act: This will allow an even deeper level of cooperation between the two countries, especially as we face the menace of global terrorism.

2. Making 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 from the Caspian Sea region.

In a speech at Princeton University, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated: “The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union initiated a new moment of transformation.” One country that has seized this moment and is transforming itself into a country with shared values is America’s best friend in the former Soviet Union: Azerbaijan.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting.

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