WASHINGTON – President Bush told the president of Azerbaijan on Friday that his oil-rich country has "a very important role to play" in guaranteeing energy security around the world. The two leaders also discussed Iran, an area of potential difference.
Bush said he assured President Ilham Aliev that the United States wants to resolve a crisis over Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy. Aliev has made it clear that he would not allow his country to be used for any operations against its neighbor.
Bush and Aliev met in the Oval Office after the White House acknowledged that parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan have not met international standards.
Bush said he told the president that "democracy is the wave of the future." Aliev said, "We share the same values." He said Azerbaijan is a "secular, democratic country."
Energy was a major issue. "I appreciate the vision of the government, the vision of the president, in helping this world achieve what we all want, which is energy security," Bush said. "Azerbaijan has got a very important role to play and we discussed internal politics and we discussed the politics of the neighborhood as well."
In a personal note, Bush congratulated Aliev on the wedding of his daughter this weekend.
Ahead of the meeting, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov called Iran "our big neighbor" and emphasized that the two countries "share history, culture and religion." He said Iran guarantees Azerbaijan transit rights for land shipments and provides gas supplies to its Nakhichevan enclave, cut off by Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
"All this plays a great role when we speak about the situation around Iran," he said.
Mammadyarov said the Bush-Aliev meeting signified the two countries were entering a new level of cooperation as Azerbaijan becomes a key energy transit country. The newly built Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which provides an alternative to Russian routes and energy sources in the volatile Middle East, is scheduled to deliver the first shipments of Caspian Sea oil to Western markets this June. In the fall, the new Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline will provide a new source of energy for the Turkish market.
"This answers our national interest and signifies the strengthening of Azerbaijan's independence, of our position on the international arena and the region," Mammadyarov told The Associated Press in an interview.
Azerbaijani officials also hope Bush and Aliev will discuss the 18-year-old conflict over the ethnic Armenian-dominated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. At least 30,000 people were killed and 1 million made refugees during six years of war that ended with a shaky cease-fire in 1994. Ethnic Armenian forces occupy the enclave inside Azerbaijan.
The United States, together with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is trying to mediate a resolution.