An upcoming meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and US President George W. Bush is fuelling speculation about what role Azerbaijan may play in the conflict between Iran, its neighbour to the south, and the US over Iran's nuclear research program.
Information about the White House's invitation was first reported by Radio Liberty on April 6 and confirmed by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov on April 7. Novruz Mammadov, the head of the presidential administration's international relations department, said that Ilham Aliyev will meet with US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The largely unexpected invitation has sparked frustration among Azerbaijan's opposition and celebrations among the country's ruling elite. During last year's parliamentary election campaign, the opposition had targeted the lack of a White House invitation for President Aliyev as proof of Azerbaijan's poor record on democratic reform.
Coming just one month after a US State Department report that strongly criticized human rights conditions in Azerbaijan, the sudden invitation has surprised many local observers. News of the trip has encouraged speculations over what role Azerbaijan might play in the conflict between the US and Iran over Tehran's nuclear research program. Attention is also being given to the ongoing Nagorno Karabakh talks, Caspian surveillance system negotiations and other security and energy issues.
Iran, which borders Azerbaijan and has a large ethnic Azeri minority, is expected to feature prominently in the White House's discussions with President Aliyev. Recent articles in The New Yorker and The Washington Post have indicated that the US administration is considering launching a military attack against Iran. The April 10 New Yorker article by investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh claims that "US Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups," including ethnic Azeris.
Azerbaijani officials have been careful in discussing what the US conflict with Iran means for Baku's relations with Washington. In a visit to the Azerbaijani capital in late March, however, Assistant US Secretary of State Daniel Fried stated that the US is keeping the Azerbaijani government informed about its plans concerning Iran "because Azerbaijan has the right to be aware about it," local media reported. Fried also said that the US looks forward to reaching consensus with Azerbaijan on this issue. The US official did not dismiss the possibility of US troops being deployed in Azerbaijan some day, although said that a large military base should not be expected any time soon.
Turan news agency chief political analyst Zafar Guliyev believes that Iran is the main reason for Ilham Aliyev's invitation to the US. "I think they [the US] will try to involve Azerbaijan in the anti-Iranian coalition. The White House wants to get Azerbaijan's approval for using its territory against Iran. To get Azerbaijan's participation in the coalition is as important as it was during the Iraq campaign," Guliyev told Day.az on April 10.
While acknowledging that Iran has featured in a topic of discussion with Washington, government officials, however, maintain that Azerbaijan does not intend to join any alliance against the Persian Gulf state. At an April 6 press conference, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov rejected reports that the US is attempting to include Azerbaijan in an anti-Iranian coalition. "Azerbaijan has no intention to become part of a coalition against someone else and wants to build friendly relations with all the region's countries," Azimov said. The official noted only that "Azerbaijan is concerned about some activities of Iran in the disputed sector of the Caspian Sea."
Azimov stressed that "the US wants nothing from Azerbaijan." Washington's interest in Azerbaijan, the official continued, is "to see Azerbaijan developing as a normal stable state. That is why possible threats to Azerbaijan's national security were discussed."
Guliyev argues that sooner or later Azerbaijan will have to choose between Washington and Tehran. "For the time being, the Azerbaijani government did well balancing in its foreign policy, but there are moments when choice is inevitable."
Independent political analyst Rasim Musabekov agrees that concerns over Iran form the primary reason for the White House's invitation to President Aliyev, but sees little chance that Azerbaijan would stand with the US against Iran. "Given the geographical neighborhood, and the historical, cultural and human links, it is impossible for Azerbaijan to become a member of such a coalition. But regardless of whether Azerbaijan supports US plans or not, their realization whether as economic sanctions or military actions -- will have a huge impact on our country."
Analysts project that the two sides will discuss many issues about Iran that are unrelated to the country's nuclear ambitions, among them border security, prevention of Iranian threats against US and Western-owned property in Azerbaijan, and security for Azerbaijan's oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijani officials have noted that they are also interested in discussion of Iran's treatment of ethnic minority Azerbaijanis.
Many observers assume that securing Azerbaijan's support for the US position on Iran will be linked to progress on resolution of the 18-year conflict with Armenia over the disputed exclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov has announced that he received an "interesting proposal" for resolution of the Karabakh dispute during his April 7-8 trip to Washington. Before meeting with Mammadyarov on April 7, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke on the phone with both President Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian, according to the US State Department press office.
Baku, according to Mamadyarov, will announce its response to the proposal when Steven Mann, US co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, which supervises the Karabakh talks, visits the Azerbaijani capital on April 18.
Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, who visited Washington in late March, has also told reporters that a130-kilometer-long section of the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, currently under Armenian occupation, made up part of his discussions with US officials.
A series of recent visits paid to the US by Azerbaijani officials and to Baku by senior US diplomats indicate further likely topics for discussion during President Aliyev's visit. Security, energy and reforms issues were also discussed during an April 8 meeting between Condoleezza Rice and Elmar Mammadyarov, US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish told Turan on April 10.
For its part, the delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Azimov reviewed joint anti-terror efforts, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), border security and the general military and political situation in the Caspian Sea basin. The delegation included Azerbaijani Naval Forces Commander-in-Chief Shahin Sultanov, and high level representatives from the Ministry of National Security and State Border Service.
Of particular note are the two Caspian Sea basin surveillance systems proposed by the US (Caspian Guard) and Russia (CasFor). Russia maintains that the two systems cannot exist in the same area, and favors establishment of a common system, according to Gennady Yevsyukov, spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Baku. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, however, has stated that Azerbaijan will have to make the ultimate decision about whether the two systems can co-exist.
According to Azimov, a number of agreements were reached during the visit. "The . . . risks and threats in the Caspian region [are] very complicated. There are elements of war, terrorism, environmental threats," Azimov told the state-run Azertag news agency on April 1. "In this regard, the US will cooperate with Azerbaijan very closely. We have reached a number of agreements." The official stated that "several groups of the US experts" will visit Baku to consider the possibility of Azerbaijan joining the G-8 club of industrialized countries' WMD non-proliferation initiative.
Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.