Enhancing the Regional Role of Azerbaijan: A Key Consideraton for the United States


2013-09-16 By Richard Weitz

The Republic of Azerbaijan is a close U.S. ally since Azerbaijanis regained their independence following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

It has become a prominent role model for Muslim-majority nations seeking to manage religious and ethnic differences in a harmonious and productive manner.

Thanks to its secular policies and embracing approach toward religious an ethnic diversity, Azerbaijanis have accrued substantial soft power as an attractive Muslim model for emulation by other countries.

By enhancing this soft power, the United States can challenge Iran’s influence among Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere, where Azerbaijan is already viewed more favorably than Iran.

In particular, Azerbaijan can serve as a model for Iran’s large and influential Azerbaijani minority, which could indirectly change Tehran’s obnoxious foreign and defense policies without the risky use of U.S. military power.


In my Special Report on The Regional Role of Azerbaijan, I review Azerbaijan’s recent history and its growing soft power and other forms of influence.

Thanks to its natural blessings—above all its people, geography, and energy resources—Azerbaijan has achieved remarkable economic, diplomatic, and soft power influence.

Vision and perseverance also helped Azerbaijanis overcome their post-Soviet trauma and treacherous neighborhood to emerge as an influential force for religious, economic, and other forms of cooperation in an often-troubled world.

During the two decades since Azerbaijanis regained their national independence on October18, 1991, its diverse people have experienced a remarkable comeback.

The country’s GDP has grown from $1.2 billion in 1992 to more than $60 billion today. Azerbaijan is presently one of the few countries to serve on the UN Security Council, having won election in October 2011 to that seat for the first time in one of the Council’s most competitive elections in recent history. Azerbaijan gained this coveted status based on its contribution to reducing global tensions as well as on the basis of its energy riches.

The report’s second part discusses the role of religion in Azerbaijani society and politics.

The country adheres to a strict separation of Church and State.

The government offers benign but hands-off support for all religious groups in the country, empowering all denominations to run their own institutions through mosques, churches, synagogues, etc., and other independent hierarchies. Azerbaijani officials follow the physician’s principle of “do no harm” toward religious groups and try to create favorable conditions for the freedom of worship—such as by declaring November 16 as an official Day of Tolerance–and strive to conserve the country’s different religions, cultures and traditions.[i]

The government also pursues an active policy of conserving the country’s diverse religious heritage, among other means by restoring houses of worship and other religious facilities, both in the country and beyond.[ii]

In practice, Azerbaijanis strive to go beyond mere tolerance (refraining from discrimination or anti-religious acts) to embrace interfaith mutual respect, understanding, and collaboration.[iii]

They celebrate their country’s rich ethnic and religious diversity, taking pride in the dozens of religious groups that have been living in harmony on their lands for centuries, learning how to get along despite the invariable difficulties in managing religious differences, which normally involve fundamental human principles and values.

The third section of the report reviews Azerbaijan’s complex relationship with Iran, which extends beyond their common religious heritage to encompass economic ties as well as geopolitical rivalry.

Azerbaijan shares extensive historical and cultural ties with Iran as well as a 620-kilometer land frontier along with a Caspian Sea border.

Iran puts constant pressure to seek to reduce Azerbaijan's regional influence; http://blog.heritage.org/2012/02/23/irans-clandestine-operations-threaten-azerbaijan/
Iran puts constant pressure to seek to reduce Azerbaijan’s regional influence;

Although Azerbaijanis desire to maintain correct and proper relations with Tehran, Iran’s leaders have regularly denounced Azerbaijan’s secular policies and occasionally sought to destabilize Azerbaijan’s government through terrorism and other provocations.

A mixture of offensive and defensive considerations motivates Iranian leaders. For some Iranians, as a neighboring country with a Shiite majority population and a history of ties with Persia, Azerbaijan is a natural target for exporting the Iranian Revolution as manifested in the Islamic Republic’s clerical system of government.

For others, Azerbaijan’s soft power, secular government, Western orientation, and independent energy, economic, and security policies have reinforced Tehran’s hostility.

Iran’s aggressive clerical regime considers Azerbaijan as falling within its zone of influence and has taken actions to reinforce that message. Over the past few years, Azerbaijan’s security services have foiled a number of alleged Iranian plots to carry out terrorist attacks against Western and Israeli interests in Azerbaijan.

Despite Iran’s official denial of any involvement, many believe that Tehran’s clerical regime is complicit in aiding the attacks against Western and Israeli targets in Azerbaijan and elsewhere in the world as a means to intimidate Azerbaijan against supporting Western military actions against Iran, an unfounded concern of some Iranians reinforced by irresponsible Western news commentaries.

Perhaps even more importantly, as explained in detail in the report, the close cultural and ethnic ties between Azerbaijan and Iran have alarmed Iranian leaders into fearing that their own people, especially Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani minority, would prefer their government adopt the kind of moderate domestic and foreign policies found in independent Azerbaijan.

Iran is home to a large ethnic Azerbaijani population of around 30 million people. Like Iran’s other minorities, the country’s Azerbaijani have suffered from various forms of state-supported discrimination, especially in the public sphere. Azerbaijan’s independence has rekindled Iranian fears about potential Azerbaijani autonomous movements in Iran.

The report then assesses the partnership Azerbaijan enjoys with the United States and Israel.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azerbaijan was among the first countries to offer the United States unconditional support in the war against terrorism.

Its leaders denounced the al-Qaeda crimes and have permitted U.S. warplanes to overfly Azerbaijani territory in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which drove the Afghan Taliban from power. Since then, Azerbaijan has provided landing and refueling support for U.S. military transports to Afghanistan and allowed NATO countries to deliver material to their troops in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network that passes through Azerbaijan’s territory.

In addition, Azerbaijan contributes to U.S. energy and economic goals.

By exporting enormous amounts of natural gas from its own production as well as serving as a vital land corridor for Caspian and Central Asian energy deliveries to European countries, Azerbaijan reduces Europeans’ dependence on Russian and Iranian energy sources and helps thwart Iranian threats to global energy supplies by closing the Strait of Hormuz or curtailing its own oil exports.

Furthermore, U.S. firms have a major presence in Azerbaijan thanks to the government’s preferential treatment of U.S. energy companies, which began in the 1990s.

Its diplomats have since used their country’s membership on the UN Security Council and other mechanisms to support U.S. regional and global security goals.

There are a variety of ways for the United States to counter Iranian influence in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus, but several seem most profitable at the present time.

The United States can use its foreign aid and investment to strengthen its influence in the region, it can work with Baku to strengthen Azerbaijan’s benign soft power, and the United States can employ its international influence to find a peaceful solution to Azerbaijan’s territorial conflict with Armenia.

These policies would also help counter the narrative of U.S. abandonment and indifference that one sometimes hears in Baku among Azerbaijanis worried about U.S. regional setbacks, diplomatic preoccupation with Moscow, and the fear of being left to deal with rising Russian-Iranian influence in the South Caucasus.[i]

For example, though the resources the Islamic Republic invests in influencing events in Azerbaijan is unknown, one can be sure that the amount the regime in Tehran spends to indoctrinate and influence Azerbaijan’s youth is considerable.

Iran is known to spend considerable sums to  develop “Iranian Cultural Centers” in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. While these institutions are called “Cultural Centers,” they typically serve as recruiting institutions for Tehran.

Furthermore, Iran provides scholarships and opportunities for Azerbaijanis nationals and others to travel to Iran and to study in Iranian higher education institutions.

The United States has the resources to fight this tactic. U.S. higher education institutions are undoubtedly better than their Iranian counterparts and Azerbaijanis would more likely study in the United States than in Iran. Americans should seek to provide more education and scholarship opportunities to Azerbaijani youth.

Azerbaijanis’ main international preoccupation is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which Tehran manipulates to gain influence in Armenia and keep Azerbaijan distracted.

Exploiting Azerbaijan’s post-independence chaos, Armenian troops conquered the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts in 1992. Although the parties signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994, Armenian forces have defied UN Security Council resolutions and continued to occupy one-fifth of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory since 1992. Thus far, the Azerbaijani side has pursued an admirably restrained policy toward the occupation.

Rather than arming the remaining 800,000 refugees from the conflict who are still alive in a modern terrorist movement or army of national liberation, the government has encouraged restraint. Azerbaijani officials have emphasized that they would like to settle their territorial disputes with Armenia through peaceful means. They have therefore and have concentrated their efforts on achieving a negotiated settlement under the auspices of the United Nations, the OSCE, and other international bodies.

Yet, Azerbaijanis have indicated that they cannot accept Armenian occupation of so much legally recognized Azerbaijani territory indefinitely.

Azerbaijan works with international forces to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan.  Azerbaijan army soldiers from the Azerbaijan Armed Forces gather together during a military advisory team (MAT) and police advisory team (PAT) training exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Sept. 14, 2012.  This exercise was designed to replicate the Afghanistan operational environment in order to prepare MATs and PATs for counterinsurgency operations with the ability to train, advise and enable the Afghanistan National Army and the Afghanistan National Police. http://www.dvidshub.net/image/666466/military-advisory-team-police-advisory-team-ii-training-exercise#.UgDTfhZ9kto#ixzz2bBVhNNlI
Azerbaijan works with international forces to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan. Azerbaijan army soldiers from the Azerbaijan Armed Forces gather together during a military advisory team (MAT) and police advisory team (PAT) training exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Sept. 14, 2012.

Azerbaijan has used some of its energy riches to build a powerful military that many experts believe could forcefully seize the disputed territories, which includes parts of Azerbaijan currently occupied by Armenian troops, provided Iran and Russia do not intervene on Armenia’s behalf. The 2008 Georgia War shows how these supposed “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union can abruptly thaw and explode. Each side has deep-seated grievances about the other’s behavior, such as the Khojaly tragedy on February 26, 1992, but if relations among Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey can improve, then Armenia might rely less on Tehran to balance Azerbaijan in the region.

The United States should exploit these contacts and step up its efforts to promote a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement as a means to reduce Iranian influence in the South Caucasus and to prevent the 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 OSCE Minsk Group, has failed to make enduring progress despite more than a decade of efforts.

The U.S. 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. Russian concerns about maintaining regional stability during the Sochi Winter Olympics could make 2013-2014 an unusually favorable time for a new high-profile U.S. diplomatic initiative. Congress can do its part to support this effort by repealing Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom of Support Act.

Whatever its value in ending the original Nagorno-Karabakh war, this outdated 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 assistance to both states, ranging from enhanced trade benefits to full-scale U.S. diplomatic representation to U.S. efforts to promote Armenian-Turkey reconciliation.

By seeking more vigorously to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the United States could improve its leverage in the South Caucasus while decreasing Iranian influence. By strengthening Azerbaijan’s soft power, the United States would counter Iranian threats because the people of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus, would view Azerbaijan, a pro-Western, prosperous, and secular state, as a superior model to that of Iran’s bankrupt theocracy.

In particular, Azerbaijan can serve as a model for Iran’s embattled minorities, which can indirectly compel the clerical regime to moderate its aggressive domestic and foreign policies without the risky use of U.S. military force.

Editor’s Note: For the introduction to importance of examining Azerbaijan’s role and its impact on the United States see the following:


For a PDF version of the Special Report on Azerbaijan’s Regional Role: Iran and Beyond please go to the following link:


And for a Flip Book version of the report please go to the following link:


The photo above is further explained below:

This exercise was designed to replicate the Afghanistan operational environment in order to prepare MATs and PATs for counterinsurgency operations with the ability to train, advise and enable the Afghanistan National Army and the Afghanistan National Police.

Credit: US Army