2012-10-11 by Richard Weitz
Although Americans and Azeris have a long history of friendship, this year marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and the post-Soviet state of Azerbaijan.
The U.S. government and U.S. companies were eager to develop newly independent Azerbaijan’s oil and gas fields through their foreign direct investment. The U.S. government has also seen Azerbaijan as an important ally in its efforts to build the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, which bypasses Russian territory.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azerbaijan was among the first countries to offer the United States unconditional support in the war on terrorism, opening its airspace to the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Since then, Azerbaijan’s airbases have provided landing and refueling support for U.S. military transports to Afghanistan.
Azerbaijan was also the first Muslim nation to send its troops to serve with U.S. forces in Iraq.
Nonetheless, in 1992, the United States Congress banned direct aid to the government of Azerbaijan – the only exception to the United States’ contribution of aid to the post-Soviet governments – as a response to the Azerbaijani blockade during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan viewed this as unfair legislation, given that Armenia had taken portions of Azerbaijani territory.
It was only in 2002 that the Congress, responding to Azerbaijan’s support in the war on terror, authorized the president to waive Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom of Support Act, which prohibits direct U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan’s government, on national security grounds. The United States has sold the Azerbaijani surveillance and border security equipment under this exception and engaged in some limited training activities.
For example, U.S. Navy SEALs have trained Azerbaijan’s Special Forces. In addition, Azerbaijan works with the Oklahoma National Guard through the State Partnership Program (SPP) .The United States also can use Azerbaijan’s airspace for medevacs. Since the beginning of 2012, the United States has medevaced 2,200 patients over Azerbaijan to the theatre medical system, where they have a 95% chance of survival.
The United States has also been seeking to strengthen Azerbaijan’s maritime defense and surveillance capabilities.
In 2005, Azerbaijan began participating in the U.S. European Command’s Caspian Guard Initiative (CGI), an effort to coordinate U.S. activities with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in countering terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and drug and human trafficking. Through the CGI, the Azerbaijan navy has received training in maritime special operations, WMD detection, communication, rapid response, border control and naval infrastructure.
Following some recent strains that emerged following what many Azerbaijani strategists saw as Washington’s defeat in the 2008 Georgia War, tensions over human rights, and a political deadlock over confirming the proposed U.S. ambassador to Baku, relations with the United States have improved in the last year, with the U.S. Senate finally confirming an ambassador to Azerbaijan (Richard Morningstar) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making an official visit to Azerbaijan in June.
Despite recent improvements, section 907 remains a serious obstacle in relations between the two countries, especially from the Azerbaijani perspective, which objects to being discriminated against compared with Armenia. Azerbaijan does not believe the temporary waive of Section 907 sufficient, as it leaves open the opportunity to cut off Azerbaijan from aid in the future.
The U.S. and NATO troop surge in Afghanistan has had the beneficial effect of stabilizing the military situation there and giving the Kabul government a fighting chance of bringing peace to that long-troubled land.
But the extra troops have required extra supplies. Fortunately, Azerbaijan has assumed a lead role in allowing NATO countries to deliver material to their troops in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network that passes through its territory. Railways and trucks convey fuel, food, and construction supplies through its territory, while almost all American soldiers that enter Afghanistan fly over Azerbaijan’s territory.
Azerbaijan is also quietly helping prevent Tehran from expanding its influence in Eurasia.
Located on Iran’s northern border, Azerbaijan is understandably leery of a direct confrontation with the Tehran regime, in part because of a large population of ethnic Azeris. But Azerbaijan is bravely if quietly providing the United States and Israel with intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities, and has even sought to reduce tensions between Washington and Moscow over the Iranian missile defense issue by offering them shared use of the Russian military radar based in Gabala.
Energy security depends on having reliable suppliers that refrain from manipulating energy deliveries for political reasons. Not only does Azerbaijan export enormous amounts of natural gas from its own production, but it serves as a vital land corridor for Caspian and Central Asian energy deliveries to our European allies. These deliveries reduce Europeans’ dependence on Russian and Iranian energy sources and also help decrease 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.
Close commercial relations between Azerbaijan and the United States were established with the signing of the “Contract of the Century,” which required the member companies to develop Azerbaijani oil fields. 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, an astounding 4,533% increase.
Azerbaijan was recently elected to become one of the few countries to serve on the UN 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 need Azerbaijan’s vote to impose additional sanctions on Iran, roll back North Korea’s nuclear program, and sustain peace in the Middle East.
One means to ensure that this U.S.-Azerbaijani strategic partnership continues is to help resolve Azerbaijan’s territorial dispute with its western neighbor Armenia. Both fought a brutal war in the early 1990s over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict continues to fester, as Nagorno-Karabakh’s status remains uncertain and both nations confront each other in a dangerous face-off. Each side has deep-seated grievances about the other’s behavior as well as competing territorial and historical claims. The 2008 Georgia War shows how these supposed “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union can abruptly thaw and explode.
The next U.S. administration should make a vigorous effort 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-Azerbaijani war.
The current structure seeking a negotiated settlement, the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 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 it is routinely sent to the Middle East, to propose 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) that prohibits direct aid to Azerbaijan’s government. Whatever its value 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.
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.