Global Insights: U.S. Must Strengthen Ties With Azerbaijan

By Richard Weitz

This month marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and the post-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, a country that is currently playing a vital role in sustaining NATO forces in Afghanistan, supporting Georgia and other U.S. friends in Eurasia, and helping to moderate Iranian and Russian ambitions in the energy-rich Caspian Basin region. But Washington needs to prioritize its ties with Baku to strengthen the partnership and to make sure that Azerbaijan and its fragile neighbors in the geopolitically vital South Caucasus region remain strong and stable.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Azerbaijan was among the first countries to offer the United States unconditional support in the war against terrorism, opening its airspace to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Since then, its airbases have provided landing and refueling support for U.S. military transports to Afghanistan. Azerbaijan has also assumed a lead role in allowing NATO countries to deliver material to their troops in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network, which passes through its territory.

More quietly, Azerbaijan is helping to prevent Iran from expanding its influence in Eurasia. Located on Iran’s northern border, Azerbaijan is understandably leery of a direct confrontation with Tehran, in part because of concerns over Iran’s large population of ethnic Azeris as well as Iran’s illicit subversive activities in Azerbaijan. But behind the scenes, Azerbaijan is providing the United States and Israel with intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities. And Israel recently announced a major arms deal with Azerbaijan designed to bolster their mutual security.

Baku has even sought to reduce tensions between Washington and Moscow over the issue of ballistic missile defense to counter the Iranian missile threat by offering them both shared use of the Russian military radar installation based in Gabala. As U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rubin correctly put it after talks last month with Azeri officials in Baku, “Azerbaijan is with us” on the Iranian issue.

Meanwhile, when it comes to European energy security, not only does Azerbaijan export enormous amounts of natural gas from its own production, but it also serves as a vital land corridor for Caspian and Central Asian energy deliveries to our European allies. These deliveries decrease Europeans dependence on Russian and Iranian energy sources and also help reduce the cost of U.S. energy imports by dampening the effect of Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz or curtail its own oil exports. U.S. energy firms have a major presence in Azerbaijan’s energy sector thanks to the government’s preferential treatment of U.S. energy companies. This partnership has helped propel the country’s GDP from $1.2 billion in 1992 to $54.4 billion.

Azerbaijan was recently elected to serve as a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Already its diplomats have supported U.S. efforts, opposed by Russia and China, to force the brutal Syrian government to end its killing of innocent civilians. In the next two years, the United States could conceivably need Azerbaijan’s support in future votes -- to impose additional sanctions on Iran, for instance, or to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.

One means to ensure that the U.S.-Azerbaijani strategic partnership remains solid is to help resolve Azerbaijan’s territorial dispute with its western neighbor, Armenia. The two countries fought a brutal war in the early 1990s over the breakaway separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict that continues to fester: Nagorno-Karabakh’s status remains uncertain and both nations confront each other in a dangerous face-off that periodically flares into violent military skirmishes along the border.

Azerbaijan has used some of its energy riches to build a powerful military that many experts believe could forcefully seize the disputed territories, which in addition to Nagorno-Karabakh include adjacent Azerbaijani territory currently occupied by Armenian troops. Although Azerbaijani officials have emphasized that they would like to settle this dispute through peaceful means -- perhaps within a comprehensive framework that would also achieve a normalization of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey -- they have indicated that they cannot accept the status quo indefinitely. The 2008 Georgia War shows how these supposed “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union can abruptly thaw and explode.

Fortunately, the United States has strong ties with Armenia, another good friend of the West. Like Azerbaijan and Georgia, Armenia participates in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and contributes troops to NATO missions, including in Kosovo and Afghanistan. And the United States provides democracy assistance and other aid to Armenia.

In October 2009, Armenia and Turkey signed an accord, brokered by the U.S., to establish diplomatic ties. The protocol, which called for the reopening of the countries’ border and would also work toward reducing tensions between the two countries, was the first major step toward reconciliation that Armenia and Turkey had taken in the past 16 years. The Armenian parliament approved the agree,emt within the timeframe cited in the documents, but the Turkish government is awaiting a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to do so. 

The Obama administration should step up its efforts to promote a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement as a means to prevent any collateral damage to U.S. security and energy interests in Eurasia that would ensue from another Armenia-Azerbaijan war.

The current structure for seeking a negotiated settlement -- the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes the U.S., Russia, France and the OSCE -- has failed to make enduring progress despite more than a decade of efforts. The administration should appoint a high-level envoy of the sort that is routinely sent to the Middle East, to present concrete bridging proposals directly to the parties in conflict.

Congress can support this effort by repealing an outdated provision of the 1992 Freedom of Support Act (Section 907) (.pdf) that prohibits direct aid to Azerbaijan’s government. Whatever its value was in ending the original Nagorno-Karabakh war, the provision is now impeding U.S. diplomatic flexibility and weakening U.S. influence in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, including efforts to promote their democratic development and sustain their autonomy from foreign influence. With respect to democracy, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe states that Azerbaijan does not meet its criteria for free and fair elections. In addition, the U.S. State Department has been critical of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. Sustained U.S. diplomatic engagement with Azerbaijan and the other South Caucasus governments could help overcome these deficiencies, which are unfortunately widespread in the post-Soviet states. It would also promote their political development and strategic autonomy.

Ideally, Congress and the administration should support a negotiated settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with financial and diplomatic support to both states, ranging from enhanced trade benefits to full-scale U.S. diplomatic representation to U.S. efforts to promote Armenian-Turkey reconciliation. Azerbaijan has shown its willingness to be a friend to Washington, and right now, America needs all the friends it can find in this strategic region.