“Azerbaijan plays an important part in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the combat troops they have there – and also a civilian presence – but through ground transportation and allowing over flights,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in his June trip to Azerbaijan. Indeed, shortly after Gates’ visit, Secretary Clinton traveled to Baku to reiterate President Obama’s message to the President of Azerbaijan: “Azerbaijan’s contribution in Afghanistan has strengthened your country’s stature as a steadfast security partner.”

It is hard to imagine that a mere 20 years ago Azerbaijan was a little known communist republic within the former Soviet Union.  Even more amazing is the journey that this nation of eight million has endured.  20 years ago, Soviet troops stormed into Baku to put down the nascent movement for freedom and independence under the guise of “protecting communism.” On that bloody January in 1990 all hopes for this nation seemed to have died.  Today, Azerbaijan is a vibrant nation raising itself from the ashes of the totalitarian Soviet system to make the arduous transition to what President Obama has called “a young democracy.”  Although Azerbaijan’s journey towards becoming a genuine democracy is some years away, it is nonetheless an American friend and strong ally in a region of strategic importance to the United States.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, former President Heydar Aliyev called a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to offer his country’s unwavering support.  At that meeting, Azerbaijan offered help to the U.S. in numerous forms: flyover rights to American aircraft; help in stopping the illicit trade of nuclear material; and, deployment of Azerbaijani troops to any theater of U.S. operations (Azerbaijan had already sent troops to Kosovo at the request of President Clinton).  This cooperation with Washington began after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the U.S. government began a serious effort to ascertain the whereabouts of nuclear material.  The importance of this cooperation became evident when in the late 1990s and during this past decade illicit nuclear material destined to Iran was recovered with help from Azerbaijani border security.

The uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves to international markets is a goal shared by both Baku and Washington.  Azerbaijan is now the lynchpin of Washington’s efforts to strengthen Europe’s energy security and, because of its economic and political stability as well as its responsible leadership, Azerbaijan is a favorite as the anchor for the proposed Nabucco pipeline slated to deliver natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey.

It is not just its importance as a transport corridor for energy supplies to international markets that make Azerbaijan a vital partner for the U.S. but its strategic location at the crossroads of Eurasia.  Washington is now counting on Azerbaijan’s east-west corridor – the Old Silk Road -- to deliver about 25 percent of the coalition’s supplies bound for Afghanistan.

The notion of religious tolerance is another factor that binds the two counties together.  Azerbaijan sees no conflict between its Muslim heritage and a secular government.  As the late President Heydar Aliyev was fond to say: “Islam is our faith and is firmly rooted in our hearts and in our deeds but not on the streets and in our politics.”   A firm dedication to secularism has enabled Azerbaijan to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel despite pressure from Iran’s Islamic Regime to cut off its ties to the Jewish state. On October 5, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar inaugurated a $10 million Jewish school in the capital Baku.  As Washington struggles to figure out how the Muslim countries of the Middle East can balance faith with nation building, Azerbaijan is quietly proving that Islam and secularism can co-exist quite peacefully.

President Obama has called for expanded and deeper relations with Baku.  There is one way in which the U.S. can show reciprocal support for Azerbaijan. Washington should use its good will to bring Armenia to the negotiating table for a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict.  While it is important to achieve diplomatic peace between Armenia and Turkey, a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia would actually pave the way for Armenia’s normalized relations with Turkey as well as achieve an even greater regional peace.

As the U.S. continues to face a range of global challenges it cannot tackle alone, its relations with Azerbaijan are a reminder that strategic partnerships with reliable friends can produce positive geopolitical results that enhance America’s national security.

S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D. is President of Caspian Energy Consulting