The president of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan has begun a visit to the United States with a call for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. He also said he hopes Washington can help push for a solution to a dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. The Azeri leader came Washington for several days of meetings.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev's first official stop was to address a session at the Council on Foreign Relations, a private foreign policy organization.
Azerbaijan has been helpful to the United States in the war on terror. So, it was perhaps not surprising that the Azeri leader was asked about his country's position on neighboring Iran, which is at the center of an international controversy over its nuclear program. He voiced his trust in the United States but also made clear that Azerbaijan did not intend to be involved in any military action against Iran.
"In our relations with the United States, we have [a] very high level of mutual confidence and trust, and we'll continue our military cooperation because it's to the benefit of both countries. At the same time, Azerbaijan, of course, will not be engaged in any kind of potential operations against Iran, and our officials made it very clear, including myself, in the past," he said.
He expressed the hope that the issue of Iran's nuclear program can be resolved diplomatically and added that a settlement is important for regional security.
Georgetown University Professor Angela Stent said that although Mr. Aliyev may try to steer clear of discussions about Iran, it is an issue that will undoubtedly come up in his Washington meetings.
"They're [Azerbaijan] neighbors with Iran. They do have a military relationship with the United States, although I think he was clearly implying that they wouldn't be used in any U.S. military operation. It's still clearly an issue that has to be discussed," she said.
She says in the past, Washington has criticized Azerbaijan's human rights record. But now, she adds, the international crisis over Iran has apparently overshadowed that issue in the eyes of Washington officials.
"There were parliamentary elections last fall that were not judged free and fair. And they are going to be re-run again, but they haven't happened yet. And I think there are concerns about democratization and human rights, but I would think that at the moment, the issues, the strategic issues, must be considered to be more important," she said.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. government is trying to balance a wide range of issues in its relations with Azerbaijan.
"There are a number of significant interests in our relationship with Azerbaijan: human rights most definitely, democratic development most definitely, energy security, stability in the region, the fight against terror. And we pursue all of these in parallel, while at the same time sticking to our principles and not sacrificing expediency for principle," he said.
In his remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, President Aliyev also referred to the problem with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, saying he hopes the United States "as a superpower," will contribute to the resolution of the conflict.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous territory in southwestern Azerbaijan that is under Armenian occupation. A 1994 ceasefire ended years of bloody fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, although the issue has yet to be resolved.
The Azeri leader will be in Washington several days. He meets with members of Congress and with officials from non-governmental groups such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch. On Friday, he is scheduled to visit the Pentagon and the White House.