Azerbaijan's defense minister told U.S. officials that the country was interested in "active cooperation with NATO up to full membership" but couldn't say so publicly, according to a diplomatic cable recently released by Wikileaks. The cable recounts a 2007 meeting between Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and a U.S. delegation from the Pentagon and State Department headed by then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Peter Rodman:
Abiyev said that Azerbaijan's cooperation with NATO had a goal in mind. He said that this goal "could not be announced, for certain reasons" at present, but that Azerbaijan sought "active cooperation with NATO up to full membership". He said that the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the only inhibitor of Azerbaijan moving even more quickly with NATO: "It is time for more serious, more active steps by the US in Minsk Group. Our cooperation with the US and NATO would be more open and more decisive in this case."
There is ample reason for suspicion here. It's not clear what the "certain reasons" for Baku's reticence were, perhaps the fear of a bad Iranian or Russian reaction, an issue that's frequently cited in the cables from Baku. There is reason to doubt the sincerity of that fear (see below). But even if you take the Azerbaijanis at their word, if you can't even announce publicly that you want to join NATO, the obstacles are so daunting as to make any such wish meaningless.
The last part of that quote suggests (though the cable writer doesn't say this) that Azerbaijan wanted to dangle NATO cooperation as a carrot to get the U.S. to take its side in the Nagorno Karabakh negotiations, or perhaps to get the U.S. Congressional restrictions on arms provisions to Azerbaijan overturned. Perhaps there has been a shift in attitude in Baku since 2007, but as my colleague Shahin Abbasov reported earlier this summer, what little Azerbaijan-NATO cooperation had existed seems to be declining.
But that hasn't stopped the U.S. from continuing to push more forms of military cooperation. Another cable, from 2009, discussed the visit of the commanding general of U.S. Air Forces Europe General Roger Brady to the airfield at Nasosnaya, near Baku, which the U.S. was inspecting as a potential replacement for the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. The airport had already been renovated with U.S. money, and Azerbaijani officials brought up the possibility of further renovations, with the costs shared by the U.S. and Azerbaijan. "There may well be potential at Nasosnaya, particularly if Manas' future was again in doubt," the cable's author wrote.
Another cable discusses Azerbaijan's contributions to the transportation of U.S. military cargo overland to Afghanistan on the Northern Distribution Network. It contains a remarkable statistic: as of 2009, when the cable was written, fully 96 percent of the container traffic through Baku's sea terminal was NDN-related.
And the cable again presents Azerbaijan as a willing partner behind the scenes, but unwilling to make its desire for a closer alliance public.
Baku would also be very sensitive to pressure from Russia and Iran if it consented to lethal transit within the NDN framework. The Azerbaijanis' reaction when the idea of NATO AWACS overflight was floated in Brussels in late August 2009, as well as the skittishness of the Foreign Ministry in April 2009 over approval of the REGIONAL RESPONSE 09 military exercise, and the ongoing example of the MFA's stubborn resistance to a train-and-equip program linked to an expanded deployment all suggest that Azerbaijan's enthusiasm for overt signs of increasing closeness to the United States is waning.
Yet, the cables from Baku frequently describe Baku's repeated attempts to get arms provisions from the U.S. It doesn't get too much more "overt," to use the U.S. Embassy's word, than weapons sales. Why aren't they afraid of Iran and Russia's reaction if they were to buy American weapons? It seems like they profess to be worried about that reaction when the U.S. wants something from them, but when they want something from the U.S., it's not such a big deal.