(Adam Entous, Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama promised in a letter released on Monday to tackle "serious issues" straining relations with Azerbaijan, an important link in Afghan supply lines and energy export routes to the West.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates handed Obama's letter to President Ilham Aliyev during a visit meant to ease tensions with the oil-rich Caspian Sea country, strategically located between Russia and Iran.
A U.S.-backed push for a historic rapprochement between Azerbaijan's foe Armenia and its historic ally Turkey has damaged ties between Washington and Azerbaijan, which worries its interests will be damaged by the reconciliation efforts. Baku in April accused the United States of siding with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that has been under ethnic Armenian control since a 1994 ceasefire in a war, and threatened to "reconsider" its relationship with Washington.
"I am aware of the fact that there are serious issues in our relationship, but I am confident that we can address them," Obama wrote in the letter delivered on Sunday by Gates, the most senior U.S. official to visit Azerbaijan since Obama took office in January 2009. On the plane leaving Azerbaijan on Monday, Gates said his visit "set the stage for further expansion of the relationship."
In the letter, Obama praised Azerbaijan for sending military personnel to serve in Afghanistan and opening its land and air space to help resupply U.S. and NATO forces there.
Since 2001, tens of thousands of military aircraft and supply trucks have crossed the country carrying U.S. and NATO forces and equipment to Afghanistan. The Pentagon wants to avoid problems that could slow Obama's 30,000-troop surge.
"These guys clearly live in a rough neighborhood and I told them ... how much the international community appreciated what they were doing to help everybody in Afghanistan," Gates said. He told reporters on his plane that he and Azerbaijan's leadership had discussed ways to expand military-to-military relations, including exercises and intelligence sharing.
Azerbaijan is also a significant oil producer and hub on a route for Central Asia and Caspian Sea energy to Europe, bypassing Russia to the north and Iran to the south.
"Azerbaijan's leadership in the development for a Southern Corridor for energy has also increased regional prosperity and enhanced global energy security," Obama wrote. "It is my hope that we will be able to broaden and deepen our relationship in the months and years ahead."
Obama praised Azerbaijan's commitment to a continuing effort to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, mediated by the United States, Russia and France, and warned against using force. "I ... believe that a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is essential for the long-term stability of the South Caucasus region, and support for this outcome will remain a priority for the United States."
Azerbaijan has built up its military and repeatedly warned it would have to resort to force to reclaim control over Nagorno-Karabakh if the dispute is not resolved.
The United States has expressed concern over Azerbaijan's human rights record in the past. Obama did not mention human rights in the letter, which called for closer cooperation "in the interest of regional security, democracy and prosperity".