The US-Azerbaijan relationship is fraying. It’s not just Azerbaijan, though. After six spiraling years of diplomatic missteps, all of America’s Eurasian relationships are fraying. The Obama Administration’s outreach to Iran and Russia, coupled with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and, in Baku’s case, a reported domestic crackdown, have made Washington less accommodating of its Caucasian and Central Asian partners. But unlike other relationships (with Kyrgyzstan, for example) this one can be fixed. With the post-Afghanistan strategic lull in the Caucasus, the U.S. should proactively link a repeal of aid restrictions to Baku’s progress on human rights and democratization. Carrots, not sticks, can shore up this alliance for the future. After a decade of fighting our war, the Azeris have earned it.
Much of the responsibility for the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship’s current nadir lies with the White House. It is a sour irony that Barack Obama was elected as the self-proclaimed diplomatic antidote to the great Texan un-diplomat, George W. Bush. Somewhere along the way it all began to go wrong. Obama’s team re-started the peace process by picking a fight with the Israelis, and rattled the Gulf Arabs by its abandonment of Mubarak, its headlong pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, and the long-suffering Syrian red line.
Since 2009, the Administration has also achieved the geometrically improbable feat of worsening relations with Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan simultaneously. Japan was so reassured by the pivot to Asia that Shinzo Abe reinterpreted the constitution to allow more aggressive military deployments. But no allies have been more alienated than those in Eastern Europe and the Eurasian periphery; and in the periphery none more so than in the Caucasus.
Two policies in particular are responsible: the Russian reset and the Iranian nuclear deal. Obama’s now-famous Russian policy sought to placate Russia at the comparative expense of periphery states. One of its first elements was the reneging on a negotiated missile defense deal with Poland and the Czech Republic, for which their governments had gone out on a fairly significant political limb. Its withdrawal embarrassed the Czech government and crashed the Polish one, whose successor wondered (justly) what his country got in exchange for Afghanistan and Iraq.
The reset committed the dual sins of rattling the periphery without placating the Russians and came to a final crashing end in the Ukraine crisis—which, incidentally, hasn’t ended. Within weeks of the ceasefire, Russia had abducted an Estonian security officer, is repeatedly violating NATO and Nordic airspace, and is probably responsible for the mystery vessel lurking under Stockholm’s harbor. That ceasefire itself has been repeatedly broken, especially since Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on October 26. Like its 2008 war with Georgia, Russia is using Ukraine to send a message to the periphery: America cannot save you. And the White House is doing its utmost to make sure that message is heard.
That’s a mistake, and a bad one, because Russia is huge. It spans 11 time zones and borders 14 neighbors, many of which have been strategically crucial. Georgia, for example, has been a waypoint to Afghanistan for a decade. Likewise Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Each of those nations has to make a choice when Washington comes calling: how far to accommodate the Americans, and how much to hedge with the Russians. Because Washington has reassured its allies so little, and rattled its partners so much, many of those periphery states now have every incentive to hedge toward Moscow even more.
The Administration’s strenuous effort to accommodate Iran is also contributing to its estrangement with Azerbaijan. If a nuclear deal—any nuclear deal—is to be concluded by the November 24 deadline, the sanctions regime on Iran will continue to crumble. Already, sanctions worth an estimated $7 billion have been rolled back, including $4.2 billion worth of Iran’s assets blocked overseas.
But the danger of the Iran negotiations is not that the talks extend past the deadline next month. It’s that there’s very little belief that the U.S. will prove resolute in opposing other negative Iranian behavior if a deal is concluded, like its support of terrorism. The White House is also unlikely to re-escalate sanctions and other options if a deal fails—a diplomatic success is so desperately needed it would be virtually impossible to declare a total failure. The most likely course is a continual dragging out of the negotiations until some sort of semi-agreement is reached, which the victory-starved Administration will rush to celebrate.
That’s a mistake. The deal with Iran is unlikely to stanch Tehran’s other transgressions, like its drive for regional hegemony or support for terrorism. Iran is not going to give up on the war in Syria because it disabled 6,000 centrifuges. The U.S. and Iran will still have almost totally mutually exclusive regional goals, which the nuclear deal is not intended to address. But the sanctions resulting from Iran’s nuclear deal have the happy effect of limiting its capabilities in other areas as well. Rolling them back frees the Iranians from the consequences of their foreign policy without forcing them to abandon it. Which means that the U.S. will almost certainly be pulled back into supporting the Sunni anti-Iran coalition, ISIS notwithstanding. That means it will need friendly Iranian neighbors, which are increasingly in short supply.
That’s far in the future, however. And combined with a generally ambivalent U.S. policy towards Russia, a rapprochement with Iran encourages U.S.-allied regional states to hedge. Keep a door open to the Iranians; keep a door open to the Taliban; keep a door open to Russia and one to ISIS. It’s convincing logic for the Gulf Arabs like Qatar, the Central Asians, the regional heavyweight Egypt, and even NATO members like Turkey.
But Azerbaijan has not hedged—at least, not much. It was rightfully heralded under Bush as a strategically vital waypoint—a friendly Muslim country at an energy crossroads that just happens to border Iran as well. It came with some baggage, of course, and some of that baggage has gotten heavier.
That’s the second factor in the cooling of this relationship. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner condemned Azerbaijan’s “wave of arrests of human rights defenders” over the past several months. Journalists and bloggers critical of the regime have also been arrested in greater numbers. In its annual survey of political freedom globally, Freedom House downgraded Azerbaijan’s 2014 freedom rating from 5.5 to 6, placing it in the same category as Ethiopia. There’s also the long-running conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, now frozen into place after two-plus decades, which saps Azerbaijan’s political support in the U.S.
But—the Azeri government would argue, not without justification—what’s the standard? Politically, Azerbaijan falls in the middle of ex-Soviet republics. It’s not Lithuania, but not Uzbekistan either. It’s a classic swing state, stuck between rival spheres of influence—at least three—and not really wedded to a single identity.
Which is a shame, because it has been trying to wed the West, whose top priority for the Caucasus in the post-9/11 era has been Afghanistan. Azerbaijan joined the war early, in 2002. It had nearly a hundred troops in country as of the end of 2013, and had contributed half as many again to the war in Iraq. As a part of the Northern Distribution Network, it has also been a significant thoroughfare for materiel headed to and from Afghanistan. According to Baku, 35 percent of NATO’s non-lethal supplies headed for the International Security Assistance Force go through Azerbaijan.
Not for nothing, of course. Due to the increased geopolitical requirements of the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, both the Bush and Obama Administrations began to waive Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which prohibits military aid to Azerbaijan until (essentially) the country’s conflict with Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh is settled. Since then, Azerbaijan has received more than $200 million dollars worth of military assistance from the United States—though Section 907 still dangles over its head, waived but not forgotten.
American assistance has waned some in recent years, from a high of nearly $50 million in 2008 to about $5 million in 2013. That decline reflects changing economic circumstances and a different Administration, but it also reflects the third element of this relationship. The war in Afghanistan is ending. The second Iraq War ended years ago, and Azerbaijan’s participation in the third has not yet been demanded.
But the end of these wars shouldn’t be a final nail in the alliance’s coffin. It can, instead, be an opportunity. Azerbaijan is a good ally: not just because it has so much of what America needs, but because it is responsive. It responds well and promptly to incentives, like security aid in exchange for help in Afghanistan.
Focusing Azerbaijan on the war was a geopolitical necessity, but a bit of a double-edged sword, because it meant that political liberalization would always take a back seat. So it might again, in the long run, but the end of NATO’s main Afghan effort means that, for the first time, the U.S. can tie aid to human rights issues. It’s never been tried with Baku: Section 907 was a stick, not a carrot, and anyway more tied to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Explicitly waiving 907 in exchange for tangible progress towards political liberalization, such as the release of political prisoners and relaxing media constraints, would be a start. Final relief could be tied to a genuinely free election for President, or measures to devolve more power to the legislature.
Congress would have to weigh in, of course, to repeal the statutory language. But it can keep being waived in the meantime. And politics aside, it’s not much of a geopolitical risk—after all, if Baku doesn’t respond, it doesn’t have to receive any military aid at all. But historically it does respond. In the longer run, this might even help Azerbaijan reach a sustainable agreement with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. A democratizing Azerbaijan could put pressure on Armenia to follow suit.
It’s not a guaranteed fix, of course. Just because Baku responds to incentives on security issues doesn’t mean it will respond on political ones as well. But the track record is there. The U.S. should explicitly link the two, including potential 907 adjustment, and see what happens. They’ve earned that much.