Today.Az interviews Michael McMahon, Former Member of the U.S. Congress, Counsel, Herrick, Feinstein, New York.-What are your impressions from Azerbaijan and what do you think about future of the country?
I believe the future of Azerbaijan is extremely bright! I am pleased to report that this trip confirmed my beliefs, that Azerbaijan is a rapidly developing and emerging nation, that has come so far in 21 years since Independence. The level of investment in education, the public and private building and infrastructure, and the nation's well being is remarkable. These accomplishments bode well for the future. I was very impressed with the friendliness of the people. Whether traveling with the group or striking out on my own the hospitality and warmth I was met with was remarkable. People are also proud of their nation and that especially comes across from the young people. They are extremely positive toward America. All of these factors predict a future full of promise for Azerbaijan and a stronger bond between her and the United States.-How would you estimate the current relations between Azerbaijan and US?
Currently, I believe America considers Azerbaijan an important friend and ally, but relations are not nearly as good as they should be. As you know, Congress currently operates under the prescriptions of Section 907, which limits U.S. Aid to "non military related items". Here the issue is to Azerbaijan is not even so much the funding but is emblematic of the stigma that many uninformed Americans, even members of Congress, affix to our relations with Azerbaijan.
As a secular nation comprised of mostly Muslims and therefore an example to other nations that good relations with America are beneficial, with her difficult borders especially with I ran where some 30 million Azeris live, with her history of assistance to America and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a history of friendly energy export policies with an oil and gas production industry that continues to employ and benefit many Americans, with a history of philanthropic investments, Azerbaijan should be treated as a much better and more strategically. Important partner as is sometimes the case. I am confident that the people of the Unite States and Azerbaijan can accomplish this.-We all are aware about the existence of strong Armenian lobby in the Congress which harms relations between Baku and Washington. What may help overcome this pressure and make the American policy in our region more realistic?
As a former Member of the Congress I can attest that there are significant lobby efforts working against better American-Azerbaijan relations. They are well organized and unfortunately effective, even though their work is counter to what is best for America's own national security interests. To be sure, Azerbaijan's Embassy under Ambassador Elin Suleymanov works hard and effectively, to oppose these efforts. He is assisted by grass roots groups like the Azerbaijan Society of America and USAN. But they are outgunned by groups who have years of experience and connections. One only has to look at the preposterous events which occurred when President Obama could not permanently appoint Mathew Bryza as America's Ambassador to Baku. In America, under our Constitution, such appointments must be ratified by the Senate. At the behest of the aforementioned lobbies his appointment was blocked.
These actions are not in the best interest of America and certainly not in the best interest of American and Azerbaijan relations. But these lobbies see everything as a Zero-Sum game, meaning any success for Azerbaijan is a threat to them. Of course in the world of Bi-Lateral Relations there is no room for this sentiment.
The question is, what can be done? I think plenty. As we say, sometimes you have to fight fire with fire; specifically a focused lobbying effort that draws on the local efforts underway in America and the fine work being done by the Republic and its representatives already in place. But obviously more needs to be done because ultimately the greatest deterrent to better relations is not the work of a few but it is the lack of knowledge and the truth by key decision makers and the public at large in America. To be sure, Azerbaijan a great story to tell about its past, present and future and that story needs to be told more widely. Most Americans do not know that Azerbaijan is a truly secular friend to the U.S. With very good relations to Israel, even though she has a long border with Iran, Azerbaijan is perhaps the key to a better climate in the region.-What do you think about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? May it be solved in the near future or it is out of super-powers interests?
The issue of Nagorno Karabakh and the position of Armenia towards Azerbaijan is unfortunate indeed. To be sure, a million Azerbaijanis have been removed from their homes and many have died in conflicts, on both sides. The Armenians suffer as well because they are unable to move on and seek a proper role as an economic player in the region. As the modern version of the "Greatest Game " is played out the only victors are Russia and Iran. Armenia is as close to Iran as any other when it comes to trade in energy, allowing transit and the movement of money and probably arms and drugs.
Russia continues to support the occupation of this area only to benefit its regional power play. I believe that this issue will be resolved when Armenia decides to act in its own interests which means a negotiated resolution with Azerbaijan. For centuries Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side in both lands. It should happen again and Armenia would be the biggest winner. America should take a leadership position if the Minsk Group continues to not make real progress.
-What you think about rumors in the U.S. media on possible use of the Azerbaijani territory by the US or/and Israeli military forces in anti-Iranian actions?
The question of whether Azerbaijan will allow Israel and/or the United States use its land to stage strikes has been answered on many occasions in the negative by Azerbaijan. However the fact that such speculation exists underscores the strategic importance of Azerbaijan to America and Israel in the conflict with Iran. Israel will be providing Azerbaijan with $1.6 billion in hi-tech defense equipment. Yet Azerbaijan has maintained its credibility as it disagrees with Israel on various issues making clear that as a Majority Muslim nation it still supports a two state solution on Palestine, for example. This shows the approach of a balanced partner, a regional player and an honest friend. And this fact hopefully will be better understood in Washington, sooner rather than later.