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Why the US shouldn't support Azerbaijan against Iran

The usual suspects in Washington are calling for Biden to get involved but there’s no national interest at stake.

Analysis | Middle East

As tensions are skyrocketing between Iran and Azerbaijan, the usual suspects in Washington are offering vociferous support for Baku and call on the U.S. government to do the same. One of Baku’s principal cheerleaders in Washington, the Hudson Institute’s Michael Doran, went one step further by posting a picture of Azerbaijan’s autocratic president Ilham Aliyev posing next to an Israeli-made drone, allegedly on the Iranian border, as an example to the Biden administration of how to “deal with Iran.”

Another pundit, the Heritage Foundation’s Luke Coffey, drafted a whole paper calling on the U.S. government to pamper Azerbaijan with attention as a bulwark against Iranian influence.

Such pandering to Baku is not limited to the think-tanks, however. The U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Lee Litzenberger, in a bizarre stunt, praised Azerbaijan’s “spirit of tolerance” by pointing to the “co-existence of synagogues and mosques” in a Jewish-majority village in Azerbaijan.

The ambassador, of course, neglected the uncomfortable truths that puncture this narrative of tolerance, such as Baku’s state-sponsored anti-Armenian hate speech and destruction of Armenian heritage in the country. Moreover, if the co-existence of mosques and synagogues is the benchmark of tolerance, the ambassador could also point to the neighboring Iran, where many synagogues and churches function without issue alongside mosques. Amid tensions with Iran, however, his message seemed to be intended to offer a moral boost to Azerbaijan, by emphasizing qualities, such as tolerance, that Iran, by inference, does not possess.

It is, however, decidedly not in the interests of the United States to side with Azerbaijan in its ongoing conflict with Iran.

Azerbaijan is not a formal U.S. ally. Washington has not committed to its defense, nor is Azerbaijan a candidate to join NATO. And Azerbaijan is far from blameless in the unfolding crisis.

After successfully liberating the territories under the Armenian occupation for a quarter of century, President Aliyev, instead of laying grounds for reconciliation, ramped up irredentist claims on the territory of Armenia proper, including its capital Yerevan.

The Moscow-brokered trilateral Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan statement of November 2020 putting an end to the hostilities stipulated an unblocking of transport communications between Azerbaijani mainland and its exclave in Nakhichevan establishing a land corridor, through Armenia, all the way to Turkey. Baku, however, undermined the prospects of this happening by claiming the strip of the Armenian land through which this corridor was supposed to be established as its “ancestral lands,” raising fears of its annexation. Such fears are common not only in Armenia, but also Iran, as an annexation would deprive it from the Armenian border and establish a “Turkic belt” on its northern borders.

To this has to be added Baku’s open flaunting of its “strategic relationship” with Israel — Iran’s archenemy — and Turkey, its regional rival. Azerbaijan enjoys a long-standing relationship with Israel. However, in previous years, mindful of Tehran’s resentments, Baku was careful not to antagonize its southern neighbor. The victory in the Karabakh war, however, with the help of the Israeli-made drones, emboldened Baku to be more boastful about its ties with Jerusalem, projecting a new sense of invulnerability towards Tehran.

Iran suspects, probably with good reason, that Azerbaijan has become a base for Israeli intelligence operations against it. Baku has also funded Washington “scholars” who promoted Iran’s disintegration, by cleaving its northern, predominantly Azeri-populated provinces away from Iran. And Azerbaijan harassed and arrested Iranian truck drivers delivering goods to the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

No country could be expected to passively observe such unfriendly actions affecting its national interests. Iran felt that its accommodation of Baku during the Karabakh war, repeatedly voicing support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, was not appreciated. So, when Iran launched large-scale military exercises near the Azerbaijani border, it was an entirely predictable reaction to what it saw as Baku neglecting its core concerns.

While the United States may not like the Iranian regime, it has no obligation whatsoever to reward Azerbaijan’s reckless policies.

The type of the regime in Baku is another reason why Washington should not offer support in this conflict. Azerbaijan consistently scores at the bottom of international rankings for political freedoms, civil rights, and corruption. Freedom House, for example, rates it as “not free,” notes that corruption is rampant, and that the political opposition has been weakened by years of persecution. Human Rights Watch concurs that the government “continues to wage a vicious crackdown on critics and all dissenting voices.” It also published a detailed report on the abuse, cruel treatment, and torture Azerbaijani forces inflicted on the Armenian prisoners of war.

The Biden administration made fighting global corruption one of its priorities. On this score, too, Azerbaijan performs abysmally. It ranks 129 out of 180 in the global corruption perception index. Its president and associates are a feature of major international corruption scandals, such as those uncovered by Panama papers, and more recently, the Pandora papers.    

Moreover, while Azerbaijani diplomats and lobbyists in Washington do their best to portray the country as a steadfast ally of the West, the reality could not be more different. Aliyev ended the presence in Azerbaijan of all major U.S. organizations in the country, such as the U.S. Congress-funded  Radio Liberty, International Research & Exchanges Board, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and the Soros-funded Open Society Institute.

The government-affiliated media regularly whip up anti-American conspiracy theories — lately warning the Azerbaijani public about some nefarious plans hatched in Washington to attack Azerbaijan. Aliyev, meanwhile, has forged a close relationship with Vladimir Putin, based, among other things, on a shared dislike of deeper Western involvement in the Caucasus.

The U.S. government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to U.S. values and interests. Despite lobbying efforts by Azerbaijan’s allies in Washington, Congress should also diligently avoid any action that would further fuel the conflict in the South Caucasus.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev (Photo: Gints Ivuskans via
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