- - Tuesday, October 10, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As President Trump and his foreign policy team focus on the challenges posed by North Korea’s reckless nuclear ambition, Russia’s increasing belligerent stance, China’s patient but determined quest for hegemony in Asia, and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, we should not ignore one of America’s most steadfast and reliable allies: Azerbaijan.

In fact, there are several critical reasons why the Trump administration should immediately engage with this Muslim country of 9 million sandwiched between Iran and Russia. First, the role of Azerbaijan in Mr. Trump’s recent decision to increase American military engagement in Afghanistan will be critical. Not only does Azerbaijan have troops in Afghanistan fighting alongside American servicemen, but the fact that Azerbaijan allows its airspace to be used by the Pentagon’s Transportation Command is vital to the success of the president’s mission in Afghanistan.

On his last visit to Azerbaijan, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked: “Clearly, the ability to overfly Azerbaijan and the ability to use ground transportation through Azerbaijan is obviously important. These are the most effective, most cost-efficient ways to get supplies to the international coalition in Afghanistan.”

The second reason why the Trump team must immediately engage with Azerbaijan relates to the global war against Islamic extremism. The Muslim world is undergoing a “civil war” of ideas, and Azerbaijan stands at the forefront of this battle of ideas because woven into the fabric of its rich culture and heritage is religious tolerance. Azerbaijan is home to thriving Jewish, Christian, Bahai and Sunni Muslim communities, all of whom live side by side in a spirit of tolerance.

Milikh Yevdayev, head of the “Mountain Jews” of Azerbaijan, recently stated: “I always repeat these words to Jewish people everywhere that if they don’t have a place to live, let them come to Azerbaijan.” At a time when Islamic extremism is on the rise, Mr. Trump can highlight Azerbaijan as a model for other Muslim countries to emulate.

As the president and his foreign policy team map out their plans on how best to confront the dangerous and hegemonic ambitions of the mullahs in Iran, they should not ignore Tehran’s ambitions to turn this American ally into the “Islamic Republic of Azerbaijan.” A few days ago, large crowds gathered in one of the suburbs of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to commemorate the Shia holy day of Ashura. While it is not clear to what extent the Iranian regime orchestrated this gathering, images of the commemoration are very similar to what one sees on the streets of Tehran; namely, “rent-a-crowds” invoking the names of Shia martyrs.

Thirty-eight years ago, Washington abandoned its friend and ally, the Shah of Iran, thus ushering in the era of Islamic extremism by allowing the godfather of radicalism, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to take over a modern, dynamic and religiously tolerant country. By engaging with Azerbaijan, Mr. Trump can send a message to the Iranian regime that the U.S. will stand by its friends and allies no matter how far they may be from American shores.

A fourth reason why Azerbaijan must not be ignored has to do with the intersection of Mr. Trump’s self-described ability to “make a deal,” the true character of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The key to resolving this conflict is in the hands of Mr. Putin because he has effectively turned Armenia (which occupies 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory) into Moscow’s aircraft carrier in the Caucasus.

The people of Armenia (and Azerbaijan) deserve better, and Mr. Trump can test the Russian president’s desire to resolve outstanding conflicts by asking him a straightforward question: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, do you want to make a deal for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia or not?” If Mr. Trumps gets a “nyet” from the Russian leader, then it will be very clear that the Russian president cannot be a partner for peace. But if Mr. Putin’s answer is “da,” then Mr. Trump would have solved a conflict none of his predecessors were able to solve, and maybe stop by Stockholm to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.

Showcasing Azerbaijan’s vital role as an energy corridor to Europe is a fifth reason why the Trump team must engage with Baku. The United States and Azerbaijan share the common goal of uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea basin to markets in Europe and beyond. The export of Azerbaijan’s gas to Europe, scheduled to begin in 2020, can diversify the Continent’s energy imports and lessen reliance on Russia. Mr. Trump can demonstrate a strategic vision for Europe’s long-term energy security by renewing America’s 100 percent support for a trans-Caspian gas corridor originating in Azerbaijan.

On any given day, the president of the United States and his team face daunting challenges, such as a madman’s shooting rampage, natural disasters that leave our fellow citizens homeless, or a trigger-happy dictator in North Korea. And yet amid all these legitimate concerns, we cannot forget our friends and allies. Azerbaijan is one such American partner that deserves the Trump team’s immediate attention.

• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.

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