Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1997 (5.3)
Page 66

Guest Editorial published in the Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1997. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Halfway around the world at the juncture of Russia, Iran, Armenia, Turkey, Georgia and the Caspian Sea lies Azerbaijan, an energy-rich country the size of South Carolina.

President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev in U.S.Left: President Aliyev giving a press conference on the White House lawn after meeting with President Clinton (August 1, 1997). Photo: Rafig Babayev.

Heydar Aliyev, the president of this newly independent Shiite Muslim nation, is in the midst of a three-day visit to Chicago to meet with executives of Chicago-based companies working in his country-Amoco, Hyatt Hotels, FMC and Motorola-as part of his official visit to the United States.

Aliyev has influenced the destiny of Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. His career began with his 1969 appointment as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. He became a member of the Politburo in 1982, but after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, he fell out of favor with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev because he argued against concealment of this international tragedy. He resurfaced briefly in 1990 when hundreds of civilians were killed in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, by Russian paratroopers sent by Gorbachev to crush Azerbaijan's nascent independence movement. His 1993 victory in the second democratic presidential election that was held in Azerbaijan in 75 years has once more made him guardian of his country's hard-fought independence.

There are many reasons America should support Aliyev's vision of an independent Azerbaijan.

Energy Diversification
First, America's energy security requires diversification of oil supplies coming into the U.S. With as much as 200 billion barrels of reserves, the Caspian Sea area, second only to the Persian Gulf in terms of oil reserves, can become a stable source of oil for the West over the next 40 years. In fact, initial oil projects signed thus far in Azerbaijan are expected to produce more than 2 million barrels per day-roughly equivalent to what the U.S. imports from OPEC's Arab members. Washington must aggressively support a U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership forged on oil in order to enhance the energy needs of the U.S.

Second, Washington can strengthen its policy of isolating Iran by forging even stronger political and economic ties with Baku, because Azerbaijan continues to thwart the Iranian re-gime's efforts at exporting Islamic fundamentalism to Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijan is a Shiite Muslim nation, Aliyev has striven to maintain a secular character. "We are Muslims but will never allow our country to become an Islamic state," he said. In the face of intense Iranian pressure, Aliyev pushed for a constitution in 1995 that calls for a separation of church and state. Furthermore, he banned the activities of Azerbaijan's Iranian-sponsored Islamic Party and resisted Iranian de-mands that Baku terminate friendly relations with Israel. In retaliation, the Islamic regime has forged strong ties with Azerbaijan's current ene-my, Christian Armenia. In short, Iran views the U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership as a threat to its borders.

Against Expansionism
Third, Aliyev's U.S. visit must be used to send a signal to Russia that Washington will not tolerate any expansionist designs on Azerbaijan. This expansionist tendency has exhibited itself in the form of coup attempts against Aliyev, demands for veto power over the Caspian Sea by questioning Azerbaijan's right to develop its sector of this energy-rich body of water, and efforts to create a unified Russian defense perimeter in the Caucasus Mountains. The latest manifestation of Moscow's pressure on Baku was on July 4 during Aliyev's official visit to Moscow when Russian President Boris Yeltsin complained to his guest about Baku's strong ties with Washington. Clearly, Russia views the U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership, forged through oil, as a dual threat: Azerbaijan's break from Russian domination and U.S. ascendancy in Russia's traditional zone of influence.

Wrong Legislation
Fourth, relations between Baku and Wash-ington have been strained by discriminatory U.S. legislation which makes Azerbaijan the only country in the world forbidden by U.S. law from receiving humanitarian assistance from the United States. Even Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Iran and Iraq-all avowed adversaries of America, are allowed to obtain U.S. humanitarian assistance. President Clinton has questioned the appropriateness of this punitive legislation against a country that has never made so much as a negative gesture against America. Clinton should use Aliyev's visit as a challenge to congressional leaders to repeal the ban and allow U.S. relief assistance to the nearly 1 million refugees dislocated by the war with Armenia. President Aliyev cannot sustain a pro-American foreign policy-not to mention granting major oil concessions to American oil companies-without an eventual domestic backlash due to this distinctly un-American legislation

Private Sector
Fifth, Clinton can showcase Azerbaijan as an example of how private-sector America-not the American taxpayer-can help countries with centrally planned economies make the transition to free market economies.

If the United States is to secure its enduring national security interests, it must act in a more farsighted and proactive manner to support Azerbaijan.

Dr. Rob Sobhani is a professor at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

From Azerbaijan International (5.3) Autumn 1997.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.

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