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September 13, 2015 10:51 am

Azerbaijan’s US Envoy Reveals Mixed Feelings on Iran Nuclear Deal (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman / JNS.org

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Azerbaijan Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov. Photo: Azerbaijan America Alliance.

Azerbaijan Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov. Photo: Azerbaijan America Alliance.

JNS.org – The day after the largest sandstorm in 15 years swept through the State of Israel this week, turning the skies orange and clouding people’s vision, Azerbaijan Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov says his eyes are opened wide. On his first visit to the Jewish state through Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee, Suleymanov tells JNS.org he has been enlightened about issues ranging from Judea and Samaria’s Jewish communities, to the Palestinians, to religion and rhetoric.

The U.S. ambassador from a Muslim-majority country, Suleymanov comes to Israel from a country that is shy of 30 years old and that sits in the Caucasus region on the border of Georgia and Russia to the north, Iran to the south, and Armenia to the southwest and west, with a small part bordering Turkey to the northwest.

A handsome man with a deep smile, dimples, and a hearty laugh, he extends his hand and invites this reporter to dinner. Suleymanov opens up about his perspective on faith, extremism, and American internal and foreign policy in both of these arenas.

“Don’t put it in the papers,” he says seemingly every other sentence, as he openly waxes on about a plastic factory in the Samarian community of Ariel that employs Arab and Israeli workers, and about a meaningful visit to Kibbutz Nahal Oz near the Gaza border in the south.

He expresses disdain about the state of interfaith relations in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“It is not sustainable that they don’t talk to one another,” he says through a bite of baba ganoush, questioning why Jews and Muslims in Israel cannot live side-by-side the way he describes them as doing so in his homeland.

“In my community, we don’t see any difference between Jew and Muslim,” Suleymanov says, his chest swelling with pride.

Eventually, the topic of the Iran nuclear deal (inevitably) arises. This puts Suleymanov in a tough spot. Azerbaijan is an ally of Israel (where according to latest Israel Democracy Institute poll, more than 73 percent of Israeli Jews believe the Iran deal is an existential threat), an ally of the U.S. (where President Barack Obama has been vigorously promoting the deal), and on the border with Iran (where between 12 million and 27 million Azeri expats live). Suleymanov is visibly tense in his unbuttoned white dress shirt. He swallows and takes another bite, and then agrees to answer some questions—this time on the record.

JNS: Does Azerbaijan support the Iran deal?

Suleymanov: “We welcome that there is an agreement between the two communities. We always felt, these are our neighbors and we don’t want to be isolated.…We don’t want our people to be subject to sanctions. We welcome the lowering of tensions.”

Do you support the details of the deal?

“The full details of this deal are somewhat obscure and there are different interpretations—optimistic and pessimistic ones. There are good intentions and good motives, but I think the [negotiators] should have considered all the interests of their Western allies in the region.…It is important to satisfy the P5+1 major powers. But… those powers don’t live in the region and there should have been have a more inclusive conversation.”

Will this nuclear agreement impact Azerbaijan? What’s at stake for you?

“Our biggest concern has always been that there was the possibility of an open, military confrontation on Iranian soil, which borders our soil. This agreement to a high extent excludes a military confrontation. …It is important now to make sure all sides observe the agreement.”

If you could have written the deal, would you have written it the same way?

“What the members of the P5+1 tell us is that this is the best deal they can get. We were not really consulted on the deal during the negotiations. We want to believe there was at least some understanding of the need for safeguards and security in the region, but now we can just hope.”

If Iran does not hold up its end of the deal, will a military solution be the alternative?

“There is no military solution. That is why when the international sanctions were imposed on Iran, Azerbaijan observed them. We understood then that sanctions were the only peaceful alternative. Now the agreement appears to be the only alternative to a military solution, so we hope that all sides will observe it, stick to their time tables, the specifics—again, which are yet to be fully clarified to us.”

Do you know if the ethnic Azeris living in Iran generally support the nuclear deal? 

“They are citizens of Iran and would be first to suffer if there were a military operation.…Economic sanctions would affect them, too. I imagine they see the point of view of the overall Iranian population: relief.”

It sounds like the U.S. did not include its allies throughout the negotiations, with Azerbaijan among those excluded. Does it matter whether or not American allies, such as your country, support the deal?

“What is an ally? An alliance is built on trust, on a belief that we share goals and stand by each other, that the relationship is reciprocal and equal. It should not be big brother and small brother and sometimes it feels that’s what is going on now with America, with this deal. A more inclusive conversation would have meant a better deal.…If something is going to happen next door to you, you want to at least be consulted.”

Do you feel a decreased commitment from America under the Obama Administration?

“We have worked with the Americans since our first day of independence 24 years ago. We have enjoyed an excellent and strategic relationship—security, energy, economic development, now gas. In the last several years, we have seen a lot of rhetoric against us that is not representative of the partnership we have. It is like that for the U.S. media it is comfortable to criticize Azerbaijan. The government’s criticism of our freedom of religion is so inappropriate. It would even be funny, if it was not so out of place.…Every country has challenges, but we are truly an emerging democracy trying to do what is best for our people.”

There have been some complaints from Azerbaijan against America’s double standard with regards to the situation in Ukraine versus your situation with Armenia. Can you speak to that?

“If the world had acted to protect Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, then perhaps what is happening in Ukraine would not be happening. Both the U.S. and the European Union are reluctant to speak up in defense of Azerbaijan. It is unbecoming and disappointing.”

Why do you think the Middle East is unstable?

“The leaders in the Middle East need to reject extremist ideologies, to give more rights to minorities, promote education.…Before taking action, one needs to consider what the outcomes will be. There need to be a strategy and vision, which many in the Mideast lack. And this is true for America—before initiating a policy or intervention, it needs to understand that this may not be contained to a particular part of the world, it could affect everybody. The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the best examples here.”

Do you think the Iran deal will affect your country’s relationship with Israel?

“Think about the sandstorm we had here yesterday (Sept. 8) in Israel. It did not originate here, but it caused for Israelis a major inconvenience. What happens in the region affects us all. It’s a small world. Our relationship with Israel is strong and strategic and sincere—and mutually beneficial. We have very little to do with the decisions being made, but we want all of our friends to comfortable.”

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  • Dan Stein

    I fully agree with David Davidian regarding the statement made by the so called “Azeri Ambassador suleymanov” saying, “why don’t Jews and Palestinians don’t to each other”! How ironic it is, coming from an idiot like him. The question should be asked to him as to why Azeris and Armenians don’t talk to eachother? Not only this backward country and its leaders don’t talk to their neighbor Armenians, they also have done everything to poison their own people by feeding them with falsehood and outright hatred. They have no human rights to speak of. The most repressive regime in that part of the world. They have blackmailed people left and right, who set foot in Nagorno Gharapagh. People from all walks of life that includes world famous personalities in various artistic fields and other, such as Famous opera singers, Dancers, Pianists, Orchestras, etc. They have imprisioned their own journalists who question their government’s actions regarding human rights and corruption. They have treatend to arrest and detain Armenian soccer players who play for various international teams to enter Azerbaijan to play against their teams. Talk about irrational minds.
    And this is the man who has set out to preach harmony and coexistence?
    He should go back to his country and try to Improve their human rights and have good neighborly relationship with their neighbor Armenia, instead of preaching hatred and daily false treats.
    They can arm themselves all they want, but you can not defeat a nation when they’re fighting for their existsnce! Look at Israel!
    Armenians fought valiantly, and will fight again if need be, and will prevail.
    As a Jew, I feel we should not dignify suleymanov to come and preach us as to why we don’t talk to our Palestinian neighbors. Period!

  • grace

    The Nations that will stand with Israel, Hashem wlll stand with them. The Nations that fight and reject the people of God like Iran, they will be overthrown. Let every people and nation know this for sure.

  • David Davidian

    Does Ambassador Suleymanov really wonder why Jews and Muslims in Israel don’t talk with each other? Does the ambassador also wonder why Armenians and Azerbaijanis don’t talk with each other, considering any Armenians remaining under Azerbaijan jurisdiction are in hiding after their violent wholesale expulsion across the breath of Azerbaijan less than a generation ago? The exception was the region of Nagorno-Karabakh where those remaining Armenians fought and won the right to live on their lands. These Armenians also fought Chechens, Ukrainians, and Afghan Mujaheddin, invited and welcomed by military leaders in Baku.

    Ambassador Suleymanov surely didn’t expect the rest of “the world” to finish the ethnic cleaning process of Azerbaijani Armenians, under the guise of “territorial integrity”.

    The ambassador must find himself in a hard place since Azerbaijan provides more than half of Israel’s oil imports, yet is currently in negotiations with Iran over new rail and trade links. Indeed, the sand is blowing in somebody’s face.

    Yerevan, Armenia

  • This gentleman sounds as if he has a better idea of international influences than many others.

  • Dan stein

    Are kidding me? And you fell for all those double talk coming from this Azeri ambassador on his charm offensive trip. This is a man who comes from a backward totalitarian repressive and oppressive country! The most corrupt in that region ever! And you Jews fell for all those sugar coated nice words. The way he says “we don’t discriminate against Jews in our country” or something to that effect. And you gave him a time of the day to listen to this idiot! These people are soaked in hatred. Let’s face it Jews have no friends in the Muslim world, to our great disappointment. Period! “We are alies”, what alies? With whom? It is so laughable coming from the mouth of an Azeri, who has learned how to talk thanks to their oil coming out of their butts. Right now it’s a marriage of convenience between them and Israel. Israel sell them all the weapons and they sell you all the oil and gas. That’s it! They’re arming themselves to the teeth, with only one goal in mind, attack their next door neighbor, Armenia. And Israel would be considerd complicit if war ever breaks out in that region for arming them for financial gains. Israel can not afford to have more enemies in this world. These people know nothing but hate towards their own citizens, let alone Jews. You have to live among them to know and experience the level of their hatred towards us Jews. By the way, the same applies to their cousins, or shal I say their sister country of Turkey. You think Jews are liked and respected in turkey? Jews and Israel seem to think so. Supposedly the only friend among Muslim nations. I just hope we are not that naive as Jews. I have lived in both of these countries, and I know what I’m talking about. Erdugan = Aliyev and Aliyeve = Erdugan .

  • Ephraim

    The American press is unfair? Since when? I thought the American press lives up to journalistic integrity-NOT!