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The US should stay away from Azerbaijan-Iran tensions

Encouraging Baku at this moment could very well complicate Washington’s efforts to calm tensions across the Caucasus.

Analysis | Europe

One of the persistent weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy is its propensity to enable what a prominent scholar Barry Posen called “reckless driving” — embolden, intentionally or not,  U.S. allies and partners to pursue risky policies that they would otherwise not embark on were they not made believe that Washington has their back.

A classic example of reckless driving is Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s decision to launch an offensive to recapture the breakaway territory of South Ossetia in 2008 which precipitated the devastating Russian response. Saakashvili was encouraged in his actions by his over-reliance on the George W. Bush administration’s signs of support for Georgia’s ambition to join the NATO. In the end, not only did Washington not come to Saakashvili’s rescue, but his survival, and that of Georgia as an independent state, came to depend on the ceasefire deal negotiated with Moscow by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

A more recent example involved Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s promise to “take the war to Iran,” his main regional adversary. He was emboldened by the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran and “maximum latitude” towards Riyadh which extended to U.S. support for MBS’s catastrophic intervention in Yemen. When, however, Iran fired missiles at key Saudi oil facilities in 2019, causing serious damage, the United States failed to retaliate militarily on behalf of Riyadh.

As these two examples show, offering nearly unconditional support encourages ambitious regional actors to act based on the assumption that Washington will come to the defense of its partners. Since their actions, however, may be at variance with U.S. interests, the assumed U.S. support fails to materialize, and these actors are faced with the (usually disastrous) consequences of their overreach.

Yet the United States continues to encourage reckless driving. At a State Department press briefing last Thursday, spokesman Ned Price, when asked about the mounting tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, unambiguously supported Azerbaijan. According to Price, Iran represents “a threat to the region.” The United States, therefore, “will stand with its partners, support them, and ultimately stand against the destabilizing influence that Iran presents.”

It is understandable that Iran is viewed in a negative light, much more so in the context of the regime’s ongoing bloody crackdown on its own citizens and Tehran’s active support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Yet a careful look at the South Caucasus reveals a more nuanced picture. It is true that Iran recently ratcheted up its rhetoric against Azerbaijan which it accuses of being in cahoots with Israel, Iran’s archenemy. Iran has conducted threatening military drills near Azerbaijani borders. And Tehran accused Baku of being behind the terrorist attack on a Shiite shrine in the city of Shiraz, without, so far, providing compelling evidence to back up its claims.

But Azerbaijan is far from innocent in this rapidly escalating crisis. For months Azeri state media have been broadcasting irredentist calls for a secession of the ethnic Azeri-dominated northwestern regions of Iran which the Azeri nationalists call “South Azerbaijan.” In a tightly controlled system like Azerbaijan’s, it is unthinkable that such inflammatory rhetoric did not receive a green light from the highest echelons of power.

In this context, authorities in Baku arrested alleged members of an Iranian spy network consisting of Shiite believers and others accused of gathering intelligence on Azerbaijan’s oil infrastructure and military assets. Such claims need to be treated with caution as Baku has a track record of framing politically active Shiites as Iran’s agents — accusations that are impossible to prove given the absence of independent and impartial courts in the country.

President Ilham Aliyev himself adopted increasingly provocative language by claiming the mantle of protector of Iran’s large ethnic Azeri population. Azerbaijan’s newly found role as a courted gas supplier to U.S. allies in Europe, in replacement of Russia, likely added to Aliyev’s sense of invulnerability vis-à-vis Iran.

Iranian officials and media fired back, with an op-ed in an influential reformist newspaper calling on Tehran to revoke the diplomatic recognition it granted Azerbaijan after its emergence from the Soviet break-up in 1991.

There is no discernible national interest for the United States to get involved in this spat. Azerbaijan’s main trump card in the West — its gas — does not reach the scale to make it a viable alternative to the Russian supplies. The vaunted “memorandum of understanding” Baku signed with the EU does not commit it to deliver even the modest amounts it potentially could.

The best course for the United States, therefore, would be to observe neutrality and urge both sides to de-escalate tensions. Price’s remarks, however, might be construed as Washington’s readiness to come to Baku’s aid militarily. That will only further encourage Aliyev’s taunting of Iran. The United States, however, as with with Saakashvili and MBS before, will not bail him out if and when he overreaches. Washington should not therefore encourage false expectations in Baku.

If anything, in the Caucasus, Washington and Tehran have recently been working in the same direction rather than at cross purposes. Both are increasingly worried by Azerbaijan’s aggressive attempts to unilaterally impose the peace in the region on its own terms. Washington condemned Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenian territory. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Yerevan in a show of support.

Iran, for its part, likewise pivoted to Armenia. It opened a consulate in the border town of Kapan, a symbolic gesture reaffirming its support for Armenian sovereignty in territory claimed by Azerbaijan. While Iran is driven by realpolitik, such as a fear of losing its thousand-year-old connection to Armenia, the net result of its policies objectively contributes to Washington’s stated goals — peace based on respect for the sovereignty of all regional countries.

Promoting such a peace and supporting Azerbaijan against Iran are not mutually compatible policies. It can only work with a genuine reconciliation process between Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan going forward. Yet, given the poisonous history between the three, it would take decades of building confidence to achieve such a reconciliation in the best of times, let alone with Azerbaijan constantly issuing threats. In these circumstances, Armenia simply cannot afford a luxury of having to choose between the United States and Iran.

U.S. officials would be well advised to take into account the complexities of the conflicts in far-flung regions before they rush to offer strong, unconditional backing — even rhetorically — to one of the sides, particularly if that side’s reckless polices are a major factor in fueling a conflict.

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

image: OnePixelStudio via shutterstock.com
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