By Vladimir Socor

Eurasia Daily Monitor, DC
May 3 2006

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's April 25-28 visit to Washington
-- his first as chief of state since 2003 -- was a long overdue event
for the president of a country allied to the United States and key
to energy supplies to the West.

On the White House lawn following their 45-minute meeting, U.S.
President George W. Bush twice named Azerbaijan and its president as
"our ally." Citing Azerbaijan's contributions to U.S.-led and NATO
operations in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan and its role in Caspian
energy deliveries, Bush also invoked a "need for the world to see a
modern Muslim country ... that understands that democracy is the wave
of the future." Aliyev in turn expressed confidence in the "strength
of our strategic partnership" and his country's "high level of trust
in the United States." With U.S.-supported multinational energy
projects now coming on stream in Azerbaijan, the country posted a
world-record GDP growth of 26% in 2005 and is set to at least match
that rate this year.

In an extensive briefing for the Council on Foreign Relations in New
York and an address to the conference of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber
of Commerce in Washington, Aliyev focused on three main issues for his
country: energy transit (see EDM, May 1), the Karabakh conflict, and --
responding to persistent questions -- Azerbaijan's position regarding
possible U.S. strikes against Iran's suspected nuclear installations.

Defining the Karabakh conflict as "the major problem facing
Azerbaijan," Aliyev called for its resolution based on international
law and territorial integrity as non-negotiable principles. A
stage-by-stage resolution process would ultimately permit the opening
of transport communications and enable Armenia to join regional
development projects. Azerbaijan cannot accept Armenia into such
projects as long as Armenian forces occupy Azerbaijan's territory.

Meanwhile, Section 907 of the U.S. Freedom Support Act adopted by
Congress in the context of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war in 1992 bars
direct assistance to Azerbaijan from the U.S. government. Section
907 hits the wrong target, Azerbaijan, ignoring the seizure and
ethnic cleansing of part of its territory by Armenian forces. The
Bush administration obtains annual congressional waivers of this
section since 2002, in recognition of Azerbaijan's contributions to
the anti-terror coalition; but the section remains in force. In his
meetings with Congressional leaders, Aliyev urged repeal of this absurd
piece of legislation. The response on Capitol Hill was sympathetic, but
one of the key figures involved ruefully noted that to repeal section
907 it would first be necessary to "repeal politics in Washington."

Media speculation about Azerbaijan's possible role in U.S. operations
against Iran provided a constant distraction during the visit.

Presumably, Bush intended to ask for Azerbaijan's support in some
form; and Aliyev's meetings with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte fed further
speculation. Aliyev, however, repeatedly and unambiguously stated
that Azerbaijan would not become involved in any kind of military
operations against Iran, but favored a diplomatic solution ensuring
that Iran would not acquire nuclear weapons. He alluded to the risk
for Azerbaijan should Baku end up in the crossfire: "For us, this is
not a remote issue of the kind you see on TV and can switch off to
another channel." Aliyev and his minister of foreign affairs, Elmar
Mammadyarov, also cited Iran's role in providing transit and energy
supplies to Azerbaijan's isolated exclave Nakhichevan; and referred
as well to a bilateral treaty stipulating that neither country shall
allow hostile actions from its territory against the other.

Aliyev's demurral over Iran, however genuine, is not necessarily
the final word on the matter. It still allows for deniable support
to the United States in a crisis; and it certainly does not preclude
intelligence support, which is believed to be ongoing. International
economic sanctions against Iran, however, would confront Azerbaijan
with the dilemma of either cooperating with the sanctions or risking
Iranian retaliation that could at a minimum include a blockade of

Concluding the presidents' meeting on the final day of the visit,
Bush told the press that they merely "touched on" the issue of Iran
and that both favored a diplomatic solution. Bush did not mention a
possible military option on this occasion. For his part, Aliyev stated
that his country will continue standing "shoulder to shoulder" with
the United States in Iraq and is prepared to undertake "additional
steps" if necessary in Afghanistan.

(Federal News Service, April 26; ANS, ATV, Trend, Turan, April 25-29)