Fueling the Fire: Azerbaijan, Iran, and the World’s Energy
Elin Suleymanov is the Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United States of America. A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Mr. Suleymanov also holds graduate degrees from Moscow State University and the University of Toledo. Prior to his appointment as ambassador in 2011, Suleymanov served as Azerbaijan’s first Consul General to Los Angeles and the entire western region of the United States. Azerbaijan is a former Soviet Republic that declared independence in 1991 and controls vast oil and natural gas deposits.
How does Azerbaijan fit into the overall energy equation of Europe and the world?
An anecdote: there is a 1943 video of Hitler in which one of his generals gave him a cake of the map of Russia and asked him to cut out a piece of his favorite part. He cut out Baku, Azerbaijan. He wanted the oil. Ever since the internal combustion engine, Europeans and the world have looked to Azerbaijan as an important energy provider.
Long-term demand for energy in Europe is growing, even under difficult economic conditions. As that demand continues to grow, we remain a major contributor to energy security for Europe. As a pro-western country with abundant energy resources, we hope to maintain and strengthen our relationship with the West, in particular as a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe.
How would you characterize the politics of the caucuses and your relationship with Iran and Russia, and the West?
Azerbaijan is in a unique position between Russia and Iran; no other country has that connection. And in the caucuses, Georgians and Azerbaijanis both have made a strong connection to the West. We work together to maintain the western connection to central Asia. A connection to the West is where the future lies: integration with the EU, although not necessarily officially. In terms of overall development, it is the only way to be independent and build civil society. We choose to ally with success, which in this case is the West.
Along those lines, we also are friends with Israel, which annoys our Iranian neighbors. We try to be friends with all of our neighbors including Russia and Iran, but friendship comes at a certain cost with these two countries. Iran wants us to not be a pro-western nation and to behave by the dictates of the theocratic state—which we don’t believe in. They can live the way they want, but we don’t feel that’s the right choice for us. The Russian Federation also insists on certain integration processes, customs union, and their collective security organization. We don’t believe in any of these conditions on a relationship, which leads naturally to a stronger relationship with the West.
Can you describe your relationship with Iran in more detail?
Have you seen the Jennifer Lopez article in the Washington Post? She came to play in Azerbaijan recently. It describes the difference in our secular culture versus the theocratic state of Iran. Iran has ninety million people, thirty million of whom have a similar cultural background as us. We have nine million people. They come over the border, live a secular life, and then return home. The duality of their lives is going to be difficult to maintain. The existence of Azerbaijan shows what can be done in a secular Muslim country.
We are very proud of our Muslim heritage. The issue is not Islam, but whether one should be oppressed for his religion. It is not a question of Muslim or not, but a question of whether religion and ideology should dominate the government and political system. No one should be oppressed for his religious views–we support freedom of religion.
Azerbaijan is not officially a nation that is Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, but we are a majority Muslim.
What are your thoughts on the current restrictions on Iranian oil in the midst of the current geopolitical situation? How does the Iranian oil embargo impact Azerbaijan?
Whatever happens in Iran regarding the nuclear situation, we want to see a peaceful solution. Iran is a major player in the energy market and a significant portion of Iran is co-ethnic with Azerbaijan.
If those sanctions produce a peaceful closure to the situation, we support it. It’s not just a matter of sanctions but the best solution. Whatever helps to prevent hostilities to resolve the situation is the best.
How does Azerbaijan fit into the global movement toward long-term sustainable energy development?
We realize oil and gas are finite resources. Therefore, we are investing in renewable infrastructure: we just established a state agency for renewables, such as wind and solar, and the largest electricity provider in Azerbaijan is hydropower. It makes sense to sell hydrocarbons, but also might make sense for us to use more renewables.
Since Azerbaijan is not a big consumer of energy, the question is not for us to reduce carbon emissions, but for rest of the world. I lived in California, and everyone there talks about green but doesn’t take public transportation and drives eight cylinder cars. It’s difficult to discuss ways to reduce emissions when people are not taking action.
The world is in transition already and I believe natural gas is a good step in that direction. So many academics are focusing on renewables, but the real players are looking at natural gas to lower the carbon footprint in the short run.
Feature photo: cc/Claire à Taiwan