Trump and Azerbaijan: A New Beginning in 2017?

When President-elect Donald Trump looks to the broader Middle East for allies he will find no leader more reliable and trustworthy than President Ilham Aliyev. This 56-year old is the reform-minded leader of Azerbaijan, an enormously important country to the United States sandwiched between a resurgent Russia and hostile Iran.

This Muslim country of eight million the size of South Carolina has certain unique cultural, economic and geopolitical features that deserves the next US administration’s immediate attention. Trump and his foreign policy team should unequivocally and wholeheartedly embrace Azerbaijan and its president.

The first point to keep in mind when thinking of US-Azerbaijan relations is our shared values of religious freedom and tolerance. A major feature of Azerbaijan’s national culture is religious tolerance.

President Aliyev is proud to point out that this Shi’ite country is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Indeed, unlike most other Muslim countries, Christians, Jews, Bahais and even Sunni Muslims live side by side in peace and harmony.

For example, relations between Azerbaijan and Israel are deep and include cooperation on numerous fronts including the military and diplomatic ones.

This is indeed unique in the Muslim world. When President- elect Trump looks around the Muslim world for a model of religious freedom Azerbaijan is one country he can point to.

The second point that makes Azerbaijan unique is that it shares Washington’s goal of an uninterrupted flow of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region to international markets.

Today, Azerbaijan’s oil and gas exports play a critical role in Western energy security.

For example, its oil flows to European countries as well as to refineries in Philadelphia.

By 2017, Azerbaijan’s gas exports will allow Europe to diversify its imports away from Moscow and not become reliant on Russia, which has used energy exports as a weapon in its foreign policy.

A third point the new administration should consider is that Trump will meet numerous world leaders over the next four years but none will come closer to being a true partner of Washington than Aliyev.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, his father, former president Hedyar Aliyev, invited the American ambassador to his office and pledged his country’s full support and cooperation. Since then President Aliyev has been an unwavering ally in America’s war against terrorism. In fact,

Aliyev has gone out of his way to accommodate Washington’s military, economic and commercial wish list, from allowing his country to be a transport route for US military supplies to Afghanistan to agreeing to partner with American companies to develop the untapped energy resources of the Caspian Sea region. In the dangerous world that Trump is about to inherit, having an ally that is reliable and trustworthy is essential.

The immediate steps that the president-elect’s foreign policy team must make as it concerns Azerbaijan are the following: first, invite President Aliyev to the White House for a working visit with President Trump.

Beyond getting a sense of the geopolitical challenges facing the broader Middle East and a better understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic goals from Aliyev, this meeting would send a strong signal to the regime in Tehran that a new sheriff is in town and that Washington will from this day forward embrace those countries like Azerbaijan that share its values and geopolitical goals.

Furthermore, a Trump-Aliyev meeting would send a positive message to those anxious about the president-elect’s feelings toward Islam in general and the Muslim world that President Trump values America’s alliances with those Muslim countries that put a premium on religious tolerance. In a world where Islamic extremists are dominating the headlines, Trump can showcase to other Muslim countries that Azerbaijan is the model and way forward.

While it is important for the new administration to accentuate the positive in its relations with Baku, it is also important to emphasize to President Aliyev that the rights of individual journalists and opposition figures should be respected.

Second, the president-elect’s economic team can ask that Azerbaijan’s sovereign wealth fund (which is one of the most transparent in the world) partner with American construction companies to invest in infrastructure projects in the US. Like Trump, Aliyev is a builder and has also invested heavily in building Azerbaijan’s infrastructure.

This potential US-Azerbaijan infrastructure investment based on a private-public partnership model could become a means for other sovereign wealth funds, like those of Norway, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, to partner with American companies for the win-win proposition of making a fair return on their investment and building America’s 21st-century roads and bridges.

Finally, President Trump can actually earn his Nobel Peace Prize, by bringing an end to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh.

Much has been made by the media about the Trump-Putin “love fest.” Whether accurate or not, the first litmus test for Trump and his team as to whether Putin is sincere is to ask him to work with Washington to resolve the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The people of both countries deserve to live in peace and President Aliyev has committed himself to a peaceful resolution of this conflict.

America’s stature on the world stage would be significantly enhanced if Trump succeeds in ending this conflict.

In the interest of American national security, it is imperative that immediately after being sworn into office President Trump meet with the President of Azerbaijan.

-S. Rob Sobhani, CEO of Caspian Group Holdings