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Rep. Cuellar's Bribery charges expose Azerbaijan's influence game

Rep. Cuellar's Bribery charges expose Azerbaijan's influence game

The US lawmaker's alleged illegal work on behalf of Baku is just the tip of the iceberg

Analysis | Washington Politics

On May 2, U.S. law enforcement indicted Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) on charges of taking at least $360,000 in bribes from companies controlled by the government of Azerbaijan. In exchange for money, Cuellar would attempt to shape the U.S. foreign policy towards Azerbaijan by spreading narratives favorable to that nation’s interests through speeches and legislative measures.

While the challenge of undue foreign interference in U.S. politics is not new, the case of Azerbaijan highlights a particular vulnerability in U.S. foreign policy: Washington’s fixation on inflexible alliances and enmities provides a fertile ground for foreign actors to exploit it to promote their own parochial agendas that have little to do with U.S. interests.

Azerbaijan has been an adept player on the Washington scene since the early 1990s when the country’s abundant hydrocarbon riches boosted its claims to geostrategic relevance. As detailed in a Quincy Institute brief, since 2015 Azerbaijan spent over $7 million on lobbying efforts in Washington, according to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records. And, as the indictment of Cuellar shows, that is likely only a tip of the iceberg: Azerbaijan has a long track record of illicit influence operations known as “caviar diplomacy” consisting of bribing politicians in the U.S. and Europe to promote its interests. In fact, in January 2024 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership due, in part, to those corrupt dealings.

Azerbaijan’s efforts have to be seen in the context of its decades-long conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh — a historically Armenian-majority region but within the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan. To garner U.S. and EU support, Baku’s lobbying machine, including PR firms, friendly politicians, pundits, and think tanks pitched the country as the West’s geopolitical asset against Russia and Iran — Azerbaijan borders both. As a Washington insider, who requested not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, familiar with Cuellar’s case and Baku’s broader lobbying schemes put it, playing up Russian and Iranian threats is an old trick used by Baku to “attract attention on the Hill.”

The text of Cueller’s indictment confirms that analysis: the section on the congressman’s dealings with Azerbaijan includes an exchange with the nation’s then-ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov, in which the diplomat tried to pin blame for the flare-up of tensions with Armenia in July 2020 on Russia’s alleged attempts to disrupt the “pipelines and transportation routes” in the region by using Armenia, its formal security treaty ally, against Azerbaijan. That version of events never withstood even cursory scrutiny. In fact, in hindsight, the flare-up in July looks merely like a rehearsal before a much larger, and ultimately successful, military effort Azerbaijan launched a few months later in September of 2020. Significantly, Russia failed to intervene on behalf of its ally Armenia. Yet the manipulative invocation of the Russian threat was enough to spur Cuellar and other Baku lobbyists in the West to action.

Azerbaijan uses the same threat inflation tactics when it comes to Iran. In that case, Baku’s lobbyists leverage the nation’s close and highly beneficial relationship with Israel, one of the main sources of sophisticated weaponry that helped Azerbaijan defeat Armenia militarily. The influential network of hawkish DC-based think tanks promoting the positions of Israel’s Likud-led government, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Hudson Institute, and the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), do Azerbaijan’s bidding likely because it’s in Israel’s interests, and what is in the interests of Israel, in their view, must also be beneficial to the United States. In fact, JINSA’s mission statement says that “Israel is the most capable and critical U.S. security partner in the 21st century and a strong America is the best guarantor of Western civilization.”

It follows, then, that the U.S. must support Azerbaijan. In fact, in its report on a trip to Azerbaijan in March 2024, JINSA’s experts called on the U.S. government to “block Iran’s efforts to stymie the budding cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.” The report then concludes that “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.”

Yet JINSA and Baku’s other supporters in Washington choose to disregard or downplay the booming relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia. In fact, both countries signed a declaration on “allied interaction” in 2022, just a few days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since then, the relationship has only grown stronger. In April 2024, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev went so far as to say that Russia “will never leave the South Caucasus because it is in this region.” Even Azerbaijan’s much-touted role as a source of diversification of gas supplies to Europe to wean it off Russian imports can only be viable on the condition that Azerbaijan itself gets resupplied by Moscow.

Azerbaijan’s relations with Iran are arguably more complicated as Iran, unlike Russia, borders Armenia and has opposed Azeri expansionism in the region. Yet Baku has also sought to moderate tensions with Tehran, by signing a raft of agreements to boost regional connectivity.

These examples show just how far detached the views of Baku lobbyists are of Azerbaijan from the realities on the ground. It’s not an argument to pressure Azerbaijan to change its policies — as a sovereign state, it is entitled to make its own choices, all the more so when it comes to relations with powerful neighbors like Russia and Iran. Yet there is no reason why Washington’s own policies should be based on false, manufactured premises. Rep. Cuellar’s case highlights the pernicious effects of undue interference. But it should also serve for a broader reflection on how nearly unconditional attachments to some countries and equally rigid hostilities to others helped create space for corrupt foreign interests to exploit.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) questions Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas during a Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on the DHS budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2024. REUTERS/Michael A. McCoy

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