Israel and the United States have a little-known ally in an equally little-known region of the world – Azerbaijan.
“Azerbaijan stands as a friend of the United States and a friend of Israel in a very difficult neighborhood,” said Elin Suleymanov, Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States. Suleymanov was the guest speaker at a lunch meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago on Nov. 21.
Azerbaijan, which gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, is a secular-run country bordering Iran and Russia with a majority population of Shia Muslims. It has also supported a longstanding Jewish community, today numbering about 20,000. Suleymanov said that Ashkenazi Jews live in major urban centers such as the capital, Baku, and a Sephardic community has existed in Quba since before record.
Dan Mariaschin, Executive Vice President of B’nai B’rith, which has long worked closely with Suleymanov and Azerbaijan, introduced the ambassador and later said that the American Jewish community has long seen the country as a potential friend in the Middle East, as it was one of few safe havens for Soviet Jews.
“Looking at a region in which Israel could have normal relations with secular Islamic countries to improve the climate of relationships and acceptance in that part of the world … there’s no question that Azerbaijan was at the center of that objective,” Mariaschin said.
Azerbaijan has been a key ally of the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, providing both military assistance and vital supply routes. Suleymanov also spoke about Azerbaijan’s commitment to regional energy security. Rich in oil and gas reserves, the country is part of a growing network of pipelines transporting oil from the Caucasus to Southern Europe and Israel.
Commenting on his country’s ongoing conflict with Armenia, he expressed frustration with the international response.“Without addressing that problem, the full potential of our region will never be fulfilled,” he said.
Suleymanov’s message to attendees about his country was that its direction, positions on issues and even its diversity is all a matter of choice, including its connection to the Jewish community at large.
“This relationship is not a coincidence,” he said, “it’s a reflection of a longstanding friendship among our people, and it’s also a reflection of a personal choice by the leaders of Azerbaijan.”