NOTE: This is a news brief of an April 26, 2006, meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Full transcript will be available shortly on cfr.org.
WASHINGTON — Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday dismissed any suggestion that his country would participate with the United States in military action against neighboring Iran.
Aliyev told a briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations that the subject of Iran's nuclear program was likely to be raised in talks with U.S. officials, including U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday. But he rejected speculation raised in Azerbaijani media that Bush may seek Azerbaijan's help in the event diplomacy fails to resolve the standoff over Iran's uranium enrichment efforts.
"Azerbaijan will not be engaged in any kind of potential operations against Iran," Aliyev said. "We have [a] bilateral agreement with Iran which clearly says that the territories of our countries cannot be used for any danger towards each other. It's very clear and therefore our relations are regulated by international treaties."
He urged a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis with Iran. Bush has repeatedly said he will not exclude military action from options on dealing with Iran but that he is committed to a diplomatic solution.
Aliyev stressed the U.S.-Azerbaijani partnership in other areas: "If additional steps are needed in order to achieve peace in Afghanistan or strengthen peace in Iraq, of course Azerbaijan will do all its best in order to be with the United States shoulder to shoulder as we have been from the very beginning."
Azerbaijan has contributed troops to U.S.-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and permits its air space to be used by U.S. forces engaged in anti-terror operations in the region.
Aliyev, making his first trip to the United States as president, said the issue preoccupying his country is the 18-year conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ethnic Armenian forces seized the enclave in 1992 and ultimately occupied close to 15 percent of Azerbaijani territory before a ceasefire was signed in 1994. The conflict displaced hundreds of thousands of people, which Aliyev called a "humanitarian catastrophe."
The Azerbaijani president said he wants to resolve the dispute peacefully but repeated Baku's insistence that any deal involve Armenia's withdrawal from Azerbaijani territory. Armenia rejects this and ethnic Armenians have declared Nagorno-Karabakh independent.
"I think in international relations it is not common to have a real, constructive negotiations based on fait accompli principles," Aliyev said. "Our demand is for the Armenians to return the land they occupied so that Azerbaijanis can go back to the land and continue to live in their land."
Aliyev is visiting Washington at a time of high concern over rising gas prices, and talks are expected to stress the development of Azerbaijan's rich oil reserves, which flow westward through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
U.S. officials say they will also address human rights and democratic development in Azerbaijan. The country's elections for president in 2003 and parliament last year were marred by reports from Western observers of irregularities and intimidation of opposition groups. Human Rights Watch has called on President Bush to press Aliyev for political reforms and sent him a recent letter detailing abuses in Azerbaijan.
Aliyev said Wednesday he is committed to political reforms, and that his country has enshrined "all the freedoms," including freedom of speech and religion.
He said the country's political institutions and its political parties are weak but he blamed that on the difficulties of the transition process of the former Soviet republic. Azerbaijan stands out in the Central Asia/Caucasus region as "an island of stability and development," Aliyev said.
"Look at the neighborhood," he said. "I don't think the level of democracy in Azerbaijan is lower than any other neighboring country.
He asserted his government's democratic legitimacy: "I am a president who is supported by [an] absolute majority of the population. And I remember [in] one of my interviews on the eve of the parliamentary election, I said if that's the case that means that I am right and my opponents are wrong."