Ever since the Soviet breakup in 1991, predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan has been locked in a bitter rivalry with its overwhelmingly Christian neighbor, Armenia. The two Caucasus republics have fought several wars, with the latest clashes in September 2022 claiming nearly 300 lives.
This past January, the 27-member European Union announced a new mission to monitor the border. “But with peace talks faltering, and Baku in a stronger military position, the risk of renewed clashes remains high,” warns the International Crisis Group in a recent report. “A new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan would have tremendous human costs, undermine the EU, Russian and US goal of de-escalating regional tensions, and sow further instability in an already volatile Eurasia.”
Khazar Ibrahim’s take on the situation is rather philosophical.
“We don’t have a conflict with Armenia,” said Ibrahim, Baku’s ambassador in Washington. “Armenia has a conflict with us. We want to solve it, because when one side has territorial claims to another and we don’t, then it’s definitely not us who should be blamed for the conflict.”
Reminded that his counterparts in Yerevan don’t see things that way, Ibrahim retorted: “People are free to say whatever they want. The most important thing is not what you say, it’s what international law says. Four UN Security Council resolutions specifically mention occupation of Azerbaijan lands by Armenia. What matters are the facts.”
Ibrahim spoke to The Washington Diplomat at his country’s embassy, which was established at its current location along 34th Street ever since Azerbaijan’s independence over 30 years ago. That mission has been the site of frequent protests by Armenian diaspora organizations—and sometimes, he said, those protests get out of hand.
“Radical Armenian groups living in the US come here chanting slogans. They start attacking our property. I understand when you chant slogans. Another thing is when you cheerfully acknowledge that you killed women and kids, and you sing about it. In any other country, that would be a crime,” he said. “It’s a violation of the Vienna Convention and we are in constant talks with the State Department and diplomatic security about this.”
Third time in Washington for veteran diplomat
Ibrahim, 45, has been Azerbaijan’s ambassador here since September 2021, when he replaced Elin Suleymanov, who had the job for 10 years before being reassigned to London in early 2020.
Born and raised in Lankaran—a town of about 90,000 just south of Baku along the Caspian Sea—Ibrahim has a master’s degree in international relations from Baku State University, and another master’s in security studies from Washington’s Georgetown University. He also attended senior courses at the NATO Defense College in Rome (2000-01).
The married father of four, Ibrahim previously served at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2005—where his portfolio included political, military and public diplomacy issues—then came back here from 2009 to 2011 as deputy chief of mission.
He was also a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as his country’s ambassador to NATO until 2017, and then envoy to Turkey for the four years preceding his third and current appointment to Washington.
Ibrahim said his country, which has just under 10 million inhabitants and is about the size of Maine, is becoming more important to US interests, especially in terms of energy production.
“If you look at the scope and depth of US-Azerbaijan relations, you can see a lot of progress in terms of us being valued not only as a strategic partner for the United States, but also as a reliable partner for many in Europe and beyond,” he said. “We are now providing natural gas to around a dozen European countries that need extra capacity.”
Diversifying away from oil and gas
As EU member states struggle to free themselves of dependence on Russian gas in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan has emerged as an attractive alternative. In fact, the day we interviewed Ibrahim, Kazakhstan announced that it had sent its first shipment of oil through BP’s 1,768-km Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline via Azerbaijan to Turkey and points west.
“There are so many factors right now. This war, in general, the imbalance on demand and supply, the supply chain in general, the transportation routes, so extra capacities are needed,” Ibrahim said, explaining that under a recent deal signed with Brussels, Azerbaijan will double its natural gas exports to the EU by 2027, to around 20 billion cubic meters.
This is crucial for Azerbaijan, because over time, its oil production—source of much of the country’s wealth—has been declining. The country is also trying to develop renewables, specifically wind and solar.
Given the political situation, we asked Ibrahim if his superiors at Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry allow him to speak with his Armenian counterpart in Washington, Lilit Makunts.
“There is no such thing like allowed or not allowed. Azerbaijan’s diplomacy has developed so much that if you are ambassador to the United States, your leadership gives you so much independence and puts so much trust in you,” he said, affirming that not only has he met Makunts, he’s talked to her several times.
“And not only with her, but with a lot of Armenians here. We are very open. The point is that it’s not us who are running away from discussions. I was invited to so many events to talk, debate, discuss. I accepted all of them, including the ones organized by Armenians, even though I knew that most or maybe all questions would not be in line with international law.”
He added: “I talk to them, because we believe at the end of the day, they cannot run from us and we cannot run from them.” (Makunts declined to speak to The Diplomat for this article, and in fact has shied away from interview requests in the past.)
Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Iran factor
Among other things, Ibrahim praised what he called his country’s long tradition of tolerance for both Christians and Jews, which represent a tiny fraction of Azerbaijan’s Shiite Muslim majority. Last month, Azerbaijan opened an embassy in Israel—a sign of its growing ties with the Jewish state and animosity toward Iran, with which it shares a 765-km border. Israel is also a major supplier of weapons, particularly drones, to Azerbaijan.
Until Azerbaijan recaptured a chunk of territory during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, 132 kms of its border with Iran was under occupation by Armenia, the ambassador pointed out.
“That was a gray zone for trafficking of drugs and other illicit things,” he said. “Immediately after we regained and liberated our territories, Iran started huge military exercises on our border and increased political and energy cooperation with Armenia, and began making strong statements against our strong cooperation with the United States, with European countries, and with Israel.”
On Jan. 27, a terrorist opened fire on the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran, killing its chief of security and injuring two other staffers. The US State Department immediately condemned the attack and called on Iranian authorities “to investigate and hold those responsible for the attack accountable,” through Iran itself denies the attack was politically motivated.
“I appreciate that United States was very strong and straightforward in condemning this blatant terrorist attack,” said Ibrahim.
Despite what Ibrahim called the “powerful Armenian lobby” on Capitol Hill, he said there are also “a lot of people, in both the House and Senate, who really understand the value of US-Azerbaijan relations, and the strategic value of Azerbaijan for the United States.” Yet when asked to name them, he said: “I don’t want to mention lawmakers because they’re elected by their constituents. As a foreign diplomat here, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me.”
So we then asked the ambassador if he foresees a time when Azerbaijan and Armenia can stop fighting and negotiate a bilateral peace agreement. Ibrahim responded: “Definitely. We believe that it will happen at some point—we hope sooner rather than later, because this would benefit not only our two countries but the entire region.”