Azerbaijan, the Quiet Partner

In a World in Crisis, Balancing U.S. Priorities is an Imperative

Rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan may be on the horizon. On February 28, it was reported that Germany hosted the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan for two days of peace talks.

This positive development serves as an opportunity for a reset in ties between the United States and both countries once peace talks conclude.

We recently returned from a fact-finding visit to Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, and have come away both enlightened about the country and acutely aware of its geo-strategic importance in the region.

Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, does not come to mind as a pillar of U.S. strategic interests. And yet, the country, which borders both Russia and Iran, could be critical for protecting U.S. interests not only vis-à-vis the threats from those two nations but also in securing the free flow of commerce to and from Central Asia. This requires a restart of relations by the United States with an eye towards its priorities in the region and beyond, and the steps we should take and which we should encourage Azerbaijan to take to make our partnership enduring and meaningful.

Azerbaijan has been a strong partner for critical U.S. priorities. This is a country without which the U.S. would not have been able to achieve counter-terrorism successes in Afghanistan – so, too, was its key role in our unfortunately muddled withdrawal. For years Azerbaijan provided key overflight access and basing options that enabled continuous support to Afghanistan. Over many years, Azerbaijan proved to be an ‘all-weather’ partner that provided support and forces for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. Indeed, it was among the last to leave the country after the Taliban takeover.

The United States has taken an important initial step with the recent appointment of Mark Libby, a distinguished Foreign Service Officer, as U.S. Ambassador in Baku. The position had been vacant for some time; Mr. Libby’s posting is a positive diplomatic development and perhaps an indicator of Azerbaijan’s growing regional significance. However, military-to-military cooperation is currently on hold as Secretary Blinken sits on the waiver for Section 907 of the U.S. Freedom Support Act – legislation dating to 1992 imposed during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, which bans all forms of U.S. assistance to the country. The waiver is needed to enable closer cooperation, and since 2001— in recognition of Azerbaijan’s importance to the War on Terror— administrations of both parties (including the Biden administration in 2021 and 2022) have consistently granted it, generally before the summer. As of August 2023, the Biden administration had not yet granted the waiver.

Although a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – a diverse forum of nations whose members range from Cuba and Iran to India and the Philippines and who avoid formal alliance with any major power – Azerbaijan has carved out its own place, focused on its survival and sovereignty, especially given its position at the crossroads of three former empires (Ottoman, Persian, and Russian).  Because the country maintains a distinct foreign policy and is, arguably, a rising middle power in the region, it offers opportunities for deepening U.S. engagement.

It was among the first countries in Central Asia to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (based on its perception of its own border disputes, which Azerbaijan sees as a matter of protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity) and has consistently been providing humanitarian assistance, including generators for electricity, to Ukrainians to help them survive the winter. Indeed, it has nearly doubled its gas output to help European nations amid Russia’s disruptions of gas flow to the continent.

And yet, it was reported that Azerbaijan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is beginning to forge closer ties with Russia. Undoubtedly, Russia will try to exploit the peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan to broaden its influence in the region – a more likely scenario should the United States forego engagement.

Azerbaijan’s relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, as we learned, have always been cautious. The nation, like Iran, is majority Shiite. Notably, although Azerbaijan’s population is merely ten million, another approximately twenty-five million Azerbaijanis live in Iran, concentrated in and around the city of Tabriz. Iran has therefore sought to prevent the emergence of a strong, secular, and pro-Western Azerbaijan.

In 2023, Iran orchestrated an attack on Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran (including the killing of a staff member) and staged military drills on its border replicating an invasion. In the post-10/7 environment, Iran has pressured Azerbaijan over its support to Israel. As the United States pushes back on Iranian escalation in the Middle East, it should block Iran’s efforts to stymie the budding cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.

To be clear, any conduct by Azerbaijan that approaches the threshold of genocide in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh wars must be taken seriously and accountability must be imposed on those responsible. But these steps should be balanced with the growing imperative to preserve (and ideally advance) U.S. interests – especially given the escalation of threats from neighboring Russia and Iran.

The same is true of Azerbaijan’s record on human rights more generally. The Congressionally-funded U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom recently issued a report criticizing Azerbaijan for its policing of Muslim practice within its borders, noting allegations of torture and cases of imprisonment of religious conscientious objectors. The United States must continue to push Azerbaijan to address its record on religious freedom.

Assuming the Nagorno-Karabakh issue resolves peacefully, and the relationship between both countries continues on a positive trajectory, we urge a swift waiver of Section 907. This would open the door for greater strategic possibilities with Azerbaijan, among them supporting its trade and energy corridor stretching from Central Asia through the Caucasus and into Europe, providing Central Asia’s only link to the West, and deepening coordination on efforts to apply pressure on the Iranian regime and its proxies. Given its close ties with both Turkey and our strong ally Israel, Azerbaijan is in a place to encourage Turkey to change its rhetoric on Israel during the current war.

Greater U.S. engagement with Azerbaijan is critical to building a coherent and comprehensive approach to addressing two of our key adversaries, Russia, and Iran.

In a world characterized by crisis and growing threats to the international rules-based order the United States should continue and improve its relationship with a friendly country like Azerbaijan, a proud country that stood by us in our time of need after 9/11.

LtGen Carl “Sam” Mundy, (USMC, ret.) commanded Marine Corps Forces Central Command and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Retiring in 2021 after 38 years of active service, he currently serves as President of Once a Marine LLC. He was a participant on the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2023 Benjamin Gettler Policy Trip to Azerbaijan.

Lt Gen Chris Nowland, (USAF, ret.) served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Force. Retiring in 2018 after 33 years of active service, he now serves as the President of Chris Nowland LLC. He was a participant on the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2023 Benjamin Gettler Policy Trip to Azerbaijan.

Dr. Jacob Olidort is Director of Research at the Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). He was a participant on the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2023 Benjamin Gettler Policy Trip to Azerbaijan.

Originally published in RealClearDefense.