Iran targets an American ally: Azerbaijan

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Tehran misses no opportunity to destabilize Azerbaijan. The pretext the week I visited Baku was that Azerbaijan was hosting Eurovision, the annual “American Idol” contest of Europe. That a Muslim nation would host singers, dancers, and tourists from all across Europe with open arms, irrespective of how they were dressed or their sexual orientation, is anathema to the intolerant mullahs of Iran. Beyond this superficial condemnation, there are more fundamental reasons for Iran to target this reliable American partner.

First, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, has refused to bow to Tehran’s demands that he sever his country’s ties with America and Israel. Aliyev’s foreign policy, while oriented towards the West, is grounded in a firm belief in Azerbaijan’s independence. He is also a firm defender of Azerbaijan’s multicultural identity. While Aliyev respects Azerbaijan’s Islamic heritage, he does not agree with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that ideology must trump national interests.

Second, Azerbaijan has cordial and deep relations with Israel and this irks the regime in Iran. Azerbaijan’s ties to the Jewish state are rooted primarily in agro-business, telecommunications and military cooperation. The government of Azerbaijan generously built the Jewish Ashkenazi community’s main synagogue in Baku. Iranian intelligence agents, by contrast, targeted Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan for assassination in 2011.

Third, and perhaps most important, Azerbaijan’s secularism, religious tolerance, economic growth, and Western oriented foreign policy now form a model for the freedom loving people trapped in Iran. A successfully modernized Muslim state north of its border spells danger for Iran’s theocracy. 

Whereas Iran has not signed a single production sharing agreement to boost its falling oil production in the past three decades, Azerbaijan has signed over 20 PSA’s at a value of $60 billion. Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan’s oil production is increasing, with current exports in excess of one million barrels of crude oil per day to international markets. Azerbaijan is also a major gas exporter to Europe while Iran, home to the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, is a bit player on the international markets. Today, major energy companies from the U.S. and Europe flock to Baku to sign contracts for Azeri gas. This is a testament to Baku’s successful independent foreign policy that understands economic growth must be tied to healthy relations with the West.

Azerbaijan’s record on economic reform since its independence twenty years ago has been significantly better than Iran’s. According to former American Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, “Economic reformers have followed prudent fiscal and monetary policies, and established a well-managed sovereign wealth fund modeled on Norway’s. And despite the corruption that permeates Azerbaijan’s society, government reformers invested much of the country’s energy revenue in an anti-poverty program that helped reduce the poverty rate from 49 percent to 9.1 percent from 2003 to 2009 (16 percent, according to the World Bank).”

Indeed, Azerbaijan’s oil fund is ranked as one of the world’s most transparent and has more than $32 billion in reserves. This is in sharp contrast to the opaque manner in which Iran’s oil is sold and the involvement of the revolutionary guards and the Supreme Leader who use oil revenues for their own nefarious purposes.

Not surprisingly, over the last three decades Iran’s economy has stagnated under the weight of corruption, mismanagement and an ideology-driven agenda. Azerbaijan, by contrast, has blossomed since its independence. Its GNP has grown 20% on average during past decade. And the debt-to-GDP ratio is a mere 8 percent. Inflation is under control and the Azeri manat has held its value vis a vis the U.S. dollar. This is in sharp contrast to the Iranian rial, which has lost 90% of its value since the fall of its pro-western leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Azerbaijan has been a steadfast ally of American in the war against terror and sent troop to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is in marked contrast to Iran, where Quds forces have murdered American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Whereas Azerbaijan is now a corridor for American supplies to Afghanistan, Iran is busy helping Al-Qaeda, and other Sunni groups like Hamas, undermine U.S. efforts.

Last month, Mrs. Clinton made her second trip to Azerbaijan within the past two years. She expressed strong support for Azerbaijan, and proposed a deeper partnership in all areas of cooperation. But, what she did not express was equally important; namely, to let Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor know that under no circumstance will the U.S. allow its friend to be bullied by dangerous ideologues bent on imposing intolerant values on an open and dynamic country. Congress must ask the administration for a more robust policy statement on how we intent to help our allies.    

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