Missed Opportunities in Azerbaijan

As Matt Lina notes elsewhere on the site today, the United States is missing out on critical opportunities in the former Soviet Bloc.

Matt touched on Poland, where the Obama Administration’s gaffes are not limited to accusing the Poles of complicity in the Nazi death machine. However, the situation is no better in Azerbaijan.

In the run-up to the EuroVision Song Contest, Azerbaijan detained 40 militants associated with Iran’s continued covert operations campaign against Azerbaijan. The round-up — part of a larger campaign that apparently thwarted a planned assassination attempt on Matthew Bryza, America’s ambassador to Baku — is a reminder not only of Azerbaijan’s role in counterbalancing Iran as tensions continue to mount with the Islamic Republic, but also of Azerbaijan’s delicate position as a frontline state largely deprived of meaningful military assistance from the United States.

Azerbaijan subsequently recalled its ambassador to Iran.

Azerbaijan also received plaudits from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who praised Baku’s work toward providing Europe with diversified energy sources — not least being the Southern Gas Corridor, an alternative gas supply lane that flanks Russia and will when completed work to break Russia’s stranglehold on European gas supplies — and outsized influence on its foreign policy.

Amid all of that good news is the opportunity: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, through its Secretary General, Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, is once again calling on Armenia to withdraw from the occupied regions of Azerbaijan. By itself, this is nothing remarkable — the OIC has passed numerous declarations to this effect since the Armenian invasion two decades ago, and cynics might be inclined to say that of course a Muslim organization made up of Muslim states will support Muslim Azerbaijan against Christian Armenia.

Certainly, Armenia wants the world to see it that way. But that misses the larger opportunity. The renewal of the OIC’s resolutions — echoed by virtually identical resolutions from every other major international organization in the world, including the United Nations — is an opening for the United States to actively and decisively engage in the Minsk Group process in a way that it has not for years. It is an opportunity to end the ceaseless blather that comes of a process in which Russia backs its Armenian client, France yields to its Armenian diaspora, and the United States arranges the conference chairs during shuttle diplomacy that accomplishes nothing.

Despite President Obama’s attempts to reopen ties to the Islamic world on taking office, he is best known in the region for resolutely remaining uninvolved during the Arab Spring, uninterested during the Green Revolution in Iran, and “leading from behind” in Libya. Putting a freeze on capital transfers to Armenia — one of the worst basket-case economies on the planet, reliant on its diaspora in the United States and France for survival — would cripple the state in short order; combining that with renewed shuttle diplomacy would force the Armenians to contemplate whether holding occupied territory is so vital as to risk economic collapse, and reassure the Muslim world that the United States believes that nations enjoy equal sovereignty, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Something that bold is unlikely from a President who will be fighting for every possible electoral vote in November, and dares not risking the Armenian populations in New Jersey and California. But it would be a start not only toward doing what is right, but doing it in such a way as to avoid the firing of shots, a danger that grows by the day.

It would also reinforce our influence with Baku, at a critical time in the country’s political and economic development, and remind them that the United States is as good an ally to them as they have been to us.

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