"Rumsfeld is interested in oil!" read a headline in the April 12 edition of the popular daily Echo. The April 12 visit of the Pentagon chief to Azerbaijan was a natural target for local media hungry for sensational news. But not only the press is looking for answers. Rumsfeld's visit took place under extreme secrecy, with limited public information, leaving many local analysts and pundits to speculate about the reasons for the US secretary of defense's trip, the third such visit in the past 15 months.
Most observers look to the issue of US military bases in Azerbaijan as a possible cause. Last year, considerable speculation focused on the possibility that worsening relations between Washington and Tehran would push the American military to seek bases in Azerbaijan, Iran's northern neighbor, in preparation for any possible attack on the Islamic Republic. Although the White House has since opted for diplomatic negotiations to deal with Iran's nuclear energy program, many Middle East experts continue to believe that military force remains an ongoing option.
The Pentagon and US Azerbaijan embassy web sites contained no information on Rumsfeld's one-day visit to Baku, and Azerbaijani officials preferred to keep their explanations general. The purpose of the defense secretary's visit, Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's political department, told the ANS television news station on April 10, "is to hold new discussions on the principles of cooperation between Azerbaijan and the USA in the sphere of security and [to] solve problems present in this sphere." Hasanov also emphasized Azerbaijan's role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Partnership for Peace program, citing Rumsfeld's participation "in cooperation issues implemented within the framework of NATO."
But, given the recent redeployment of US military forces from Germany, some Azerbaijani observers take a different view. Independent military expert Uzeyir Jafarov, in an April 9 interview with Echo, stated that Rumsfeld was coming to Baku to get a final answer about establishment of a US military base in Azerbaijan. Jafarov added that he believed the answer would be positive, and could come as early as mid-April. Pro-government political figures such as Jumshid Nuriyev, former head of Azerbaijan's customs service, however, disagree with Jafarov, and have argued that Azerbaijan would never agree to its territory being used for an attack on Iran, a country with which Azerbaijan shares close cultural and historical ties.
Analysts' views on the chances for a US military presence in Azerbaijan coincide with shifts in Pentagon plans for deployment of US forces. In a February 2004 visit to Uzbekistan, for example, Rumsfeld outlined the concept of "operating sites" in Asia that would allow the US and its allies "to periodically and intermittently have access and support." In times of crisis, these "sites," usually manned by small groups of personnel, could be expanded to handle larger numbers of troops and supplies.
Recent statements from Pentagon officials about strategic needs in the Caspian Sea region appear grounded in this "rapid reaction" strategy. General James Jones, commander of US troops in Europe, confirmed in recent congressional testimony the Pentagon's interest in creating a special "Caspian guard" that would protect the Caspian Sea's oil infrastructure as well as the nearly finished Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. The Wall Street Journal on April 11 reported that the US plans to spend $100 million on such a "Caspian guard" capable of responding to crisis situations in the Caspian Sea region, home to one of the world's largest reservoirs of oil. This would include the development of a command center in Baku, responsible for monitoring ships in the Caspian Sea.
Most analysts believe any kind of American military base in Azerbaijan would have to be only of a temporary, mobile nature. In 2004, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted a law prohibiting the stationing of foreign troops on the country's territory, a move widely believed to be a gesture towards Moscow and Tehran, which both oppose any strengthening of military ties between Azerbaijan and the US.
With that opposition in mind, President Ilham Aliyev has so far shown restraint in addressing Azerbaijan's military cooperation with Washington. Though expected to meet with Rumsfeld, Aliyev instead departed April 12 on a two-day visit to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijani opposition parties have speculated that Rumsfeld's visit also carried a political message. Upcoming parliamentary elections in November 2005 promise to be heated, and some media outlets, such as ANS TV, have argued that official Washington would close its eyes to the Aliyev administration's progress with democratic reforms and with them, any potential election falsifications if Azerbaijan would agree to deployment of US military forces in the country. Pro-government members of parliament have also not stopped short of charging that recent closed-door meetings by US Ambassador Reno L. Harnish with regional opposition leaders make up part of the Pentagon's negotiation scheme.
In his April 12 interview with ANS, Ali Hasanov rejected these rumors. "America is a democratic country and would never try to impose its interests on others," Hasanov said. "We are a sovereign state and have our own interests, too."
Alman Talyshli is a freelance political analyst in Baku.