01/24/2013 08:50 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Potentially a Big Help in a Dicey Region: Azerbaijan

This week marks a nice occasion for reflections on freedom, with Martin Luther King Day and the Inauguration of Barack Obama. Another occasion is virtually unknown, having happened in a scarcely-viewed corner of western Asia, in Azerbaijan - a country which is actually a lot more important to America than Americans realize, for a number of hard-nosed reasons.

First the occasion for a freedom reflection: January 20th marked the thirteenth anniversary of so-dubbed "Black January," when more than 20,000 Soviet troops rolled into the capital of Baku (in 1990), killing anywhere from 130 local citizens up to twice that number while wounding more than 700.
Those citizens wanted their freedom from the Soviet Union, then still ruled by that "communist with a human face," Mikhail Gorbachev.

Those citizens soon gained the freedom for their country but too little for themselves. Independent since 1991, Azerbaijan needs to improve civil and political liberties, and clean up some corruption, to become a closer U.S. friend and ally, as would benefit both nations.

In many critical ways, that government has already been helpful to U.S. interests. Azerbaijan is a party to all dozen or so global conventions on counter-terrorism. According to U.S. military authorities, the country "spares no efforts to make a tangible contribution to the effective counter-terrorism efforts."

It not only talks the talks but allows us to walk the walk. Or at least fly over, as more than one-quarter of the coalition's supplies for Afghanistan pass through the area. Since 2001, tens of thousands of flights for that war have passed through Azerbaijan's airspace. More than 100,000 troops have traveled through or over Azerbaijani in 2012 to get into Afghanistan. That's why the past Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, personally thanked that government for its assistance to our troops.

Azerbaijan has good relations with Israel, supplying more than 40 percent of the oil that the Jewish state needs.

But Azerbaijan's main contribution may be its assistance on Iran. It supports Western efforts to counter Iranian state-sponsored terrorism, having recently uncovered and jailed 22 Iranian-hired spies plotting attacks against Israeli and American targets.

Azerbaijan has a $1.6 billion defense deal with Israel which includes equipment helpful to monitor, and prepare if necessary to counter, threats from Tehran. The U.S. embassy in Baku is large enough to include specialists gauging Iranian moves on developing its nuclear capacity.

Last, Azerbaijan offers a nice, however modest, counterweight to Russian influence in the region. It could reduce Western Europe's reliance on fuel from Russia by installing its own pipeline to carry gas and oil westward, via Georgia and Turkey, into the European Community nations. Azerbaijan now furnishes approximately a million barrels of oil a day onto the world market.

We can hope that the long-ruling ruler Iiham Aliyev could improve conditions in the country, and that newly-inaugurated Barack Obama then capitalize on what a contribution a model Azerbaijan could make in a region needing protection against Iranian extremism, to say nothing of freedom and prosperity.