Caucasus conflict highlights US hawks' reckless support for Azerbaijan – Responsible Statecraft


U.S. hawks have a habit of disparaging diplomatic engagement with the country’s adversaries as acts of appeasement, even when it clearly serves the national interest. Yet they turn conspicuously dovish when it comes to “partners and allies” adopting policies that are overtly unfriendly to the United States and detrimental to its interests. In such contexts, their recipe is simply for Washington to do even more to please its ungrateful clients — most often, for no good reason. 
Witness the hawks’ strenuous attempts to derail the Biden administration’s efforts — belated and half-hearted as they are — to restore the nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the JCPOA. The deal served U.S. interests by ensuring that Iran doesn’t develop a nuclear bomb, through a mutual accord rather than through war. By contrast, Saudi Arabia’s failure to advance any U.S. interests, such as contributing to easing the global pressure on energy prices, normalizing relations with Israel, or joining the West in efforts to defeat Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, is met with demands to double down on groveling to its capricious rulers in vain hopes that such gestures would somehow be reciprocated.
Saudi Arabia may be an extreme case of the hawks’ double standards and inconsistencies, but by no means the only one. Azerbaijan is another good example.
Over the years, the oil-rich Caspian nation has cultivated a network of allies in mostly hawkish Washington think-tanks, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation and even some relatively more centrist outfits like the Atlantic Council. Neoconservatives appreciate Azerbaijan because it is friendly to Israel and assumed to be hostile to both Iran and Russia. Since such positions are deemed to favor Washington, Azerbaijan deserves, according to these circles, particularly strong U.S. support or a degree of dispensation at the very least.
Yet Baku’s real policies towards Washington, as opposed to the spin offered by its lobbyists, have become increasingly antithetical to the U.S. interests.
The principal source of frictions is Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia. Despite Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s frequent pronunciations that the war effectively ended following Azerbaijan’s military victory in 2020, nothing could be further from truth. Washington accused Baku of shelling the territory of Armenia in the latest bout of hostilities this week.
Of note, this attack took place while the U.S. special representative for the South Caucasus, Ambassador Philip Reeker, was visiting the region, thus momentarily raising questions of whether his planned trip to Baku would materialize after his visits to Yerevan and Tbilisi. He finally made it to Baku and was received by Aliyev, but the timing of the attack cannot be judged as anything but embarrassing for U.S. diplomacy.
This points to a deeper divergence. Baku resents the fact that Reeker has also been appointed the U.S. representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which has fruitlessly tried to mediate a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for nearly 30 years. Azerbaijan refuses to recognize the Minsk Group’s continued legitimacy as its mere existence challenges Baku’s narrative that the conflict has been “resolved.”
That is not the view of the United States and France, another permanent Western co-chair of the Minsk Group — the third co-chair is Russia — as well as Armenia. As Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia demonstrated, along with the lack of guarantees for the rights and security of the Armenian population of Karabakh, Washington’s and Paris’s reservations are well-founded. Yet they are dismissed by officials in Baku, in increasingly harsh language, as a sign of the refusal by the two Western powers to respect Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.
Such reactions are unwarranted. To address Azerbaijan’s concerns over its territorial integrity, Armenia, in fact, renounced its support for the secession of Karabakh. Baku refused to reciprocate with any gesture of good will and challenged the United States to either accept its maximalist vision of a “victor’s peace” or disengage from the conflict altogether.
The Minsk Group, a diplomatic relic from the early 1990s, is an example of cooperative multilateral engagement between the United States and other powers. In the current zero-sum climate, however, a diminishing U.S. diplomatic commitment will invite more Russian and Turkish involvement, which, given the latest hostilities, is a sure recipe for further violence in the region. That would suit Aliyev, who has astutely managed to play off both Moscow and Ankara to his advantage and who now enjoys an overwhelming power gap over Armenia. Aliyev’s close ties with Putin, however, do not seem to bother his U.S. cheerleaders who, every time there is a fresh flare-up in the region, propagate the over-simplistic narrative that Armenia is an ally of Russia and Iran, and Washington thus must support Azerbaijan.
The Iranian angle is certainly one of the key reasons behind the hawks’ enthusiasm for Azerbaijan. During the war in 2020, they cherished the dream that Azerbaijan’s military success would galvanize Iran’s sizeable Azeri community against the government in Tehran. That naïve hope failed to materialize as Iranian Azeris are part and parcel of Iranian society. However, the anti-Iranian irredentist narratives gained popular currency within Azerbaijan to a degree not seen since the early 1990s. Websites with close links to the regime’s security apparatus and defense ministry issued open calls for “southern Azerbaijanis” to secede from Iran.
That was done in response to some outlandish anti-Azerbaijani remarks allegedly uttered by a retired Iranian diplomat and leaked to a Turkish newspaper. The diplomat in question, however, in no way represented the official position of the Islamic Republic. What followed — a seemingly coordinated incitement of anti-Iranian separatism in Azeri pro-regime media outlets — certainly looked like a massive over-reaction.
Pro-Azerbaijan hawks in Washington may thrive on fomenting such tensions, yet that in no way serves U.S. interests. A military conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran would suck in other countries, such as NATO ally Turkey, which would back Azerbaijan. It would most likely also involve Israel as Baku’s close ties with Jerusalem are seen as a serious threat in Tehran. Israeli officials occasionally behave as if they are keen to add fuel to the fire. The Israeli ambassador in Azerbaijan recently posed with a book of “fairy tales of Tabriz.” Given that Tabriz is the unofficial capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, many Iranians perceived this gesture as an endorsement of the Azeri separatist agenda. A regional vortex involving Iran and Israel would increase pressure from Congress on any U.S. administration to intervene on behalf of Israel. It is not in the U.S interest to take part in yet another war in the Middle East.
Another point talked up by the Azeri lobby in Washington is Baku’s supposed role in alleviating the U.S. European allies’ energy woes following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet the quantities of gas that Azerbaijan is able to offer do not even come close to substantially mitigating the loss of the Russian supplies. And the much touted “memorandum of understanding” signed by the EU with Azerbaijan does not commit Baku to delivering even those modest amounts — it only speaks of aspirations. So, bending backwards to placate Aliyev, by turning a blind eye to his regime’s human rights record and conflict with Armenia, does not make any sense.
The policies of the Azerbaijani government — most recently its indefensible attack on Armenia as well as stoking tensions with Iran — do not in any way serve U.S. interests or broader regional security in the South Caucasus. Contrary to the hawks’ lobbying on behalf of Baku, those policies should not in any way, shape or form be assisted by the U.S. government. 
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group or the European Parliament.   
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