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27-04-06, 00:24
Iran on agenda as Bush welcomes Azerbaijan leader

By Lada Yevgrashina and Rufat Abbasov
Reuters
Monday, April 24, 2006; 11:15 AM

BAKU (Reuters) - The White House will welcome Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev for the first time this week as Washington tempers its distaste about alleged human rights abuses to woo a country it may need in its standoff with Iran.

A mainly Muslim ex-Soviet state that pumps growing volumes of oil to Western markets, Azerbaijan also has a 600 km (370 mile) border with Iran, which is being pressed by Washington to abandon its nuclear program.

Aliyev's meeting with President Bush on Friday will mark a shift in policy by the White House. Aliyev was elected in 2003 but Washington has waited until now to invite him, citing concerns about democratic freedoms.

"I think a number of things has changed," said Dr. Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"(One of these) is concern to keep Azerbaijan on board with whatever policies the administration is going to have with regard to Iran, because Iran is a neighboring state."

Azerbaijan is one of only two majority Muslim states that sent combat troops to help U.S. forces in Iraq. But it has avoided taking sides in the confrontation with Iran, not wanting to anger its bigger neighbor.

Officials say Bush and Aliyev, a 44-year-old fluent English speaker who took over from his own father as head of state, will talk about energy.

Caspian Sea oil pumped from and through Azerbaijan is valued by Washington as an alternative to supplies from the Middle East and Russia.

The two men are also expected to discuss prospects for a deal to resolve the "frozen conflict" between Azerbaijan and its neighbor Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory.

ALLY AGAINST IRAN?

The issue of how Azerbaijan can be useful in dealing with Iran has moved up the agenda in recent weeks.

"I do not rule out that Iran's nuclear program will be touched on during the talks. Azerbaijan is ready to do its part to find a diplomatic solution," said Novruz Mamedov, Aliyev's foreign policy adviser.

As a Shia Muslim nation, Azerbaijan has ethnic and religious ties to Iran. Its support for U.S. action on Iraq could therefore be psychologically important, say analysts.

If the row escalates, closing Azerbaijan's border with Iran would be a key part of any blockade to stop Tehran importing goods and weapons.

Azerbaijan might be used as a base to launch military action against Iran, though Baku and Washington deny any such plans. Many in Azerbaijan believe that would make the country a target for Iranian retaliation.

Aliyev says he is committed to democracy.

Western observers though said a November parliamentary election -- like previous votes in Azerbaijan -- was marred by ballot rigging. Afterwards, police used tear gas and water cannon to break up a peaceful opposition protest.

Ali Kerimli, an opposition leader, said the White House invitation was "a surprise."

"Does this mean ... you can close your eyes to all the violations of human rights in Azerbaijan?" he said.

The United States has voiced its concerns about democratic freedoms, said Reno Harnish, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan.

"But the clear thrust of our policy over the last two and a half years ... has been upward."

"This is about two nations with a broad and deep relationship doing the necessary and discussing (all of the issues) together," Harnish said.

© 2006 Reuters

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