Ex-U.S. official on increased role of Azerbaijan, Europe's energy security, Central Asia and Iran's nuclear issue

Ex-U.S. official on increased role of Azerbaijan, Europe's energy security, Central Asia and Iran's nuclear issue

The importance of Azerbaijan is rising in the world, David Merkel, senior fellow at the Centre for Transatlantic Relations - John Hopkins University in the U.S. and Former U.S. State Department and National Security Council senior official believes.


According to Merkel relations with Azerbaijan are an issue of great importance for Washington. And the same could be said about Brussels, Berlin or London, he said.


"I think relations between Azerbaijan and the US have greatly improved since 2011. They are better now than they were a couple of years ago," Merkel told Trend in an interview.


According to Merkel, Azerbaijan is the most reliable partner in the region for the US and NATO in the process of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.


It is a very questionable issue if NATO will be able to bring equipment and troops from Afghanistan through the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan after 2014. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan may be the most stable country in this issue, the country that NATO can rely on the most, Merkel said.


The air base at Manas which was later renamed the Transit Centre was opened in late 2001 after the U.S launched its operation in Afghanistan. At present, it accommodates about 1200 U.S soldiers. According to Pentagon statistics, the base handles up to 15,000 coalition servicemen and 500 tons of cargo a month. The agreement on deployment of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan is valid until 2014. According to Kyrgyz authorities, the base will be closed after the agreement expires.


Meanwhile, Azerbaijan will remain a very important US partner in relation to the activity in Afghanistan even after withdrawal of NATO troops from this country, Merkel said.


Nagorno-Karabakh conflict


The U.S. should pay more attention to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Merkel believes.


"I think a greater focus is needed on seeking a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Nothing has happened in the last 18 months since the Kazan meeting. I think we have to accept that the Minsk Group is an ineffective organisation to really seek progress in this process. And I believe that to see real progress requires US leadership on this issue. I think it also has to be at a significant level in the U.S.," Merkel said.


According to Merkel, US participation in the issue would allow the speeding up of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.


Merkel urged avoidance of any activity which could spark off another Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and bring more violence, such as the opening of the airport in the city of Khojaly.


"The suggestion of opening an airport runs counter to the Chicago convention. The reasons provided as to why it should be opened do not really stand up to scrutiny," he said.


According to Merkel, the unresolved conflict holds back the whole region. Meanwhile the situation in Azerbaijan is much better than in Armenia.


"There has been a lot happening in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a country which really thinks about its future. Meanwhile, Armenia has remained in the past," Merkel said.


Earlier, Armenian media reported the commissioning of the airport at Khojaly in the near future.


Commissioning the airport is an open violation of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (adopted on December 7, 1944 in Chicago), the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry reported earlier.


In this regard Azerbaijan will strengthen the legal level use of the application of the Chicago convention.


Azerbaijan banned the use of airspace over Nagorno-Karabakh occupied by Armenia, as no one can guarantee a safe air corridor in the area, the head of the Azerbaijani Civil Aviation Administration, Arif Mammadov said earlier.


He said Armenia's steps towards the operation of the airport are attempts to violate international aviation law. This air space belongs to Azerbaijan, so its use by Armenia is illegal.


The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the European Civil Aviation Conference (ICAC) also support the position of Azerbaijan on this issue.


The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.


Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group - Russia, France and the U.S. - are currently holding peace negotiations.


Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions.


Azerbaijani gas supplies to Europe 


Azerbaijan's decision on gas supplies to Europe will benefit both parties, David Merkel believes.


"The decision has increased the connection between Azerbaijan and Europe and is going to be of benefit to both Europe and Azerbaijan," Merkel said.


Azerbaijan's role in diversification of energy supplies has increased, he said.


According to Merkel, it is too early to give an assessment of the role of the other countries of the Caspian Sea region in ensuring Europe's energy security.


"We do not know yet if the countries on the other side of the Caspian Sea such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan will try to send their gas across the Caspian Sea," he said.


Merkel does not rule out that Central Asian gas will go not to Europe but to China and to the South and Pakistan and India in particular.


The Southern Corridor is one of the EU's priority energy projects aimed at diversifying the routes and sources of energy supply thereby increasing secure delivery.


Gas which will be produced during the second stage of the Azerbaijani Shah Deniz field development is considered as the main source for the Southern Gas Corridor projects.


Currently, the Shah Deniz consortium is considering two variants for its gas transportation to Europe - the Tran Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and Nabucco West. The final decision on the pipeline route will be made in June 2013.


Central Asia


The U.S. is interested in a complete policy with Central Asian countries, David Merkel said.


According to Merkel, people in the Central Asian governments think the U.S. is only interested in this region for its energy resources, promoting democracy and for making war with Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the U.S. assesses the region as being very important and wants to have a complete policy with these countries, he said.


According to Merkel, currently Central Asia is seeing the US and Europe's presence and influence decline and this could result in increasing the region's dependence on Russia or China.


The region should refrain from being pressurised by other countries. It is one of the most important challenges for this region, Merkel said.

Iran nuclear programme


No breakthrough in negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme between Iran and P5+1 is expected in the next round of nuclear talks, David Merkel believes.


"I feel confident in saying there will not be a breakthrough," Merkel said.


According to Merkel, obviously nuclear centrifuges will continue to stay in Iran and the country will get ever closer to micro weapon capabilities without ensuring safety.


Meanwhile, it is an issue of great importance and a priority for Washington to reach a diplomatic solution, he said.


The next round of nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1 group will be held in Kazakstan in late February.


Tehran and the P5+1 previously held three rounds of talks, one in Geneva in December 2010 and two in Istanbul in January 2011 and in April 2012.


The West led by the United States, has imposed sanctions against Iran, accusing Tehran of pursuing military objectives in its nuclear energy programme.


Iran has repeatedly dismissed the West's allegations arguing that as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it has every right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.









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