LONDON -- In December 1991, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, United States Secretary of State James Baker gave a speech at Princeton University on the relationship between the U.S. and the "Newly Independent States" of the former USSR. In his remarks, Baker took aim at a curious target: the tiny Republic of Azerbaijan -- about the size of the state of Maine -- which Baker described as undeserving of American recognition until it accepted a long list of conditions the U.S. had required of few other nations. Soviet watchers saw it as the work of the U.S. lobby of Azerbaijan's neighbor and sworn enemy, Armenia, to blacklist the ancient nation in the Caucuses region on the Caspian Sea.
But it proved to be the shortest blacklist in history. On Christmas Day, 1991, the USSR ceased to exist and the U.S. recognized 12 former Soviet states, including Azerbaijan. A few months later, Baker became the first U.S. Secretary of State to tour the region, and officially resumed diplomatic relations with the Azerbaijanis for the first time since 1918.
Whatever concerns Washington harbored quickly gave way to a strategic reality. Azerbaijan is located, as journalist Thomas Golz has written, in the "devil's playground -- on top of one of the greatest ethnic, religious, and political fault lines in the world... the place where the semi-East meets the semi-West, where Russia meets Iran and Turkey, and where Orthodox Christianity abuts not simply Islam but both the Sunni and Shi'ite varieties of it." Throw in the fact that Muslim-majority Azerbaijan is a staunch ally of Israel, a secular counterweight to Iran and an increasingly critical exporter of oil and natural gas, and its importance to U.S. national security seems clear -- at least, for every president until now.
Under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. deepened the relationship, signing a $10 billion investment contract with Azerbaijan to develop its oil fields. After the attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush broadened the relationship to include military collaboration, with Azerbaijan providing its airspace for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while becoming the first Muslim nation to send its soldiers to fight alongside U.S. troops. When I was in Baku in 2008, one U.S. diplomat told me that Azerbaijan was "central to all we're trying to do in this part of the world." Then-U.S. Ambassador Anne Derse described it to me as "Houston on the Caspian" -- the indispensable link to reducing European energy independence on Moscow, home to the only pipelines exporting Caspian oil and gas that bypass Russia altogether.
But since President Barack Obama has taken office, "a process of alienation has developed," as scholar and regional expert, Vladimir Socor, has said. The Obama administration did not invite Azerbaijan to attend the 2010 Nuclear Summit in Washington, which included officials from Armenia and Georgia -- and didn't appoint an ambassador for more than a year. At one point, the administration came out in support of normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations, without also referencing the ongoing conflict over the Azerbaijan territory of Nagorno-Karabakh -- the Armenian-majority region occupied by Armenia since the two nations fought a war over the area in the early 1990s.
As one Turkish columnist noted, "It's no secret that Obama's presidency has marked a new approach to the Caucuses, and that this has damaged U.S.-Azerbaijan relations." Dr. Elkhan Nuriyev, the former director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, puts it more bluntly: "The U.S. lacks any coherent vision of where and how Azerbaijan fits into a broader American strategic vision."
Which is odd because, in the rest of the world, Azerbaijan's role grows -- exemplified a year ago when it became one of five countries elected by the 193 member-nations of the United Nations to serve as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
One of the most surprising aspects of Azerbaijan -- which is 85 percent Shi'ite Muslim -- is its close alliance with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited during his first term in office, in 1997, and the partnership has only deepened since -- particularly as long-time Israeli ally Turkey has turned its back on Tel Aviv. Israel is now the second-largest importer of Azerbaijani oil, and with the recent signing of a $1.6 billion arms agreement, the military relationship between the two countries has raised eyebrows. Earlier this year, Iran accused Azerbaijan of supporting anti-Iranian activity by Israel's Mossad, while Azerbaijan charged 22 suspects in an Iranian plot to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku. In March, an explosive Foreign Policy article reported Israeli plans to potentially -- and unilaterally -- strike Iran's nuclear facilities using Azerbaijani bases for reconnaissance, refueling and rescue operations.
Iran is displeased that its northern neighbor and sworn enemy are drawing closer together. But to Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, that's partly the point. Ever since the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay split the Azeri homeland between Imperial Russia and the Persian Empire without the consent of the Azeri people, both sides have struggled for cultural supremacy. Today, 20 million Azeris live in Iran, to Azerbaijan's eight million. Iran broadcasts Azeri language TV into Azerbaijan, while some Azeri officials want to rename Azerbaijan "Northern Azerbaijan," implicitly laying claim to Northern Iran. A U.S. Congressman went so far this year as to propose legislation calling upon Iran to give its Azeri population the right to vote on which country it wants to belong to.
With Iran isolated internationally, Azerbaijan "is coming to relish its role as the region's anti-Iran." Women in downtown Baku stroll, heads uncovered, into Versace stores, and edgy pop stars like Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna have recently sold out concerts. Angered by what it considered a "gay pride parade," Iran briefly recalled its ambassador after Azerbaijan hosted this year's provocative Eurovision Awards.
Meanwhile, as sanctions squeeze Tehran, Azerbaijan produced nearly 100,000 barrels of oil and 15 billion cubic meters of natural gas last year, much of which it exported to European countries eager for reliable energy sources. When the Shah Deniz II fields come online in the next five years, Azerbaijan will likely double its natural gas production, further enhancing its influence with Europe.
It's true that, like many former Soviet states and U.S. allies, Azerbaijan still struggles with civil liberties, human rights and fundamental freedoms -- issues Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised with President Aliyev during a trip to Baku last June, while announcing that "the U.S. remains strongly committed to working with the government and people (of Azerbaijan)."
The Obama Administration needs to do more than that. It should explore whether a combination of aid, incentives and diplomacy could help resolve Azerbaijan's festering conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. It should add a small U.S. ground presence to demonstrate its commitment to the country's security, while pushing for greater NATO cooperation with Azerbaijan. And, it should assist the EU in securing the Nabucco West natural gas pipeline, which will ensure European energy security, enrich Azerbaijan and bring them closer to the West.
Home to more than half of the world's mud volcanoes, with flames that occasionally erupt hundreds of feet into the sky, "Azerbaijan" literally translates to the "Land of Fire." In the tinderbox that is the Caspian Region and the Middle East, a stronger U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership might help assure that cooler heads prevail.
The author is Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC. This is a personal comment.