U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for ambassador to Azerbaijan has told lawmakers that he will do "everything in my power" to help the Caucasian country become a "modern democracy" if confirmed for the post.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 13, Richard Morningstar said the oil-rich nation's commitment to deepened Euro-Atlantic ties "must span well beyond pipelines."
"We can't just say, 'Hey, you know, you ought to do better on this,' and, 'It's important.' We have to be able to convey how much it's in their interest to make changes and to open up society and to create that way, hopefully, greater stability within the society," said Morningstar.
Azerbaijan has long occupied the lower rungs on measures of political plurality, rule of law, and freedom of expression under President Ilham Aliyev.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (center) at the opening ceremony for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in 2006.
Pipelines, however, will consume a significant portion of Morningstar's time should he head to Azerbaijan, the third-largest oil producer in the former Soviet Union after Russia and Kazakhstan.
Featuring on his agenda will be securing Baku's continued contribution to the Southern Corridor energy project
to supply gas to Europe while bypassing Russia and Iran.
Morningstar, 67, has deep credentials in the sensitive energy politics of the region.
He currently serves as the State Department's special envoy for Eurasian energy. Under former U.S. President Bill Clinton, he was a special adviser for Caspian Basin energy diplomacy.
Morningstar also served as ambassador to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union from 1995 to 1998, and more recently, as the U.S. ambassador to the EU.
He told lawmakers that he would draw on his diplomatic experience to help defuse escalating tensions
between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. The breakaway Azerbaijani territory, populated almost entirely by ethnic Armenians, was the site of a 1988-94 war in which tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Continued skirmishes have challenged an uneasy cease-fire.
Morningstar pledged to argue in Baku that resolving that conflict would allow the government to focus on other pressing security concerns.
"I have to believe that Nagorno-Karabakh is a huge distraction when there are other critical security issues within that region that Azerbaijan faces -- the issue of Iran seems to become greater every day with respect to Azerbaijan [and] in terms of the Caspian Sea, there are any number of [security] issues," he said.
Morningstar also said Baku is "looking for [U.S.] help" amid tensions with Tehran
and weighed in on potential U.S. military sales to Azerbaijan.
The move would require a State Department waiver of restrictions currently in place and has been criticized by several lawmakers as dangerous to Armenia.
"We have to provide, I think, security assistance -- possibly military assistance -- in ways that cannot be used to exacerbate any situation with respect to Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh," he said. "I think we have to be very, very strict in doing that, but that still, I think, would allow us to do some things that are important."
Obama's nomination of Morningstar is considered by far a less contentious choice than Matthew Bryza, the president's previous pick for the post, who was dogged by accusations
of anti-Armenian bias and of questionable ties to Azerbaijani officials.
His nomination was stalled in Congress before Obama bypassed lawmakers to approve him in a late 2010 "recess appointment" for a shortened posting.
His one-year term ended earlier this year.
E. Wayne Merry, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, said the administration was taking no chances with its latest nominee and predicted Morningstar will be well-received in Baku.
"He is actually a much more senior official from the American side than would normally take an ambassadorship in a country of that size. I think his nomination actually constitutes quite an honor to Azerbaijan and represents the importance which the United States, and particularly, the Obama administration, gives to trying to establish a better relationship with Baku," he said.
Morningstar's nomination must be approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then by the full Senate.