The U.S. State Department is considering allowing a sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan, which supporters say is needed to help protect against Iran. But Washington's Armenian-American lobby and its allied members of Congress are objecting, arguiing that it could be used against Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, as well.
The equipment in question hasn't been precisely identified, but it is some sort of surveillance equipment that would be installed in Mi-35M attack helicopters that Azerbaijan has lately been acquiring from Russia. The State Department and Azerbaijan are saying that the equipment would be used by Azerbaijan's border service, and an "action item" by the U.S. Azeris Network emphasizes that the equipment is required to police the border with Iran:
[I]t is the moral responsibility of the U.S. Congress and Government to show their support to their strategic ally in that turbulent region and stand strong with Azerbaijan. Such support should start with statements and resolutions in support of sovereign, secure and independent Azerbaijan, to supplying it with defensive systems such as Patriot air-defense systems (PAC3), border protection equipment, helicopter protection systems, simulators, Command and Control gear, and any other defensive and border-protection military hardware and software that would protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, make it less vulnerable, and send a strong message to Iran to stop bullying and threatening. We should show our allies that we value their partnership and friends, and are not ignoring the threat Iran poses.
But Armenian groups aren't buying it. Congressman Howard Berman wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (released by the Armenian National Committee of America) says the equipment could be used against Armenians in Karabakh:
Two months ago, my staff inquired as to the possible use of this equipment by Azerbaijan. Just last week, they were informed that it would be used on existing helicopters to aid in border surveillance and “police-type” activities.
As Azerbaijan shares a border with Armenia, this equipment could be used to identify and possibly target Armenians in the border area for surveillance or for attack. I am also concerned about the message that such a sale would send to the regional parties, both in terms of perceived U.S. even-handedness and in terms of our seriousness about persuading Baku to cease its bellicose rhetoric and agree to Minsk Group co-chair demands that it remove its snipers from the “line of contact” in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The part of U.S. law that limits arms transfers to Azerbaijan, known as Section 907, includes a provision that allows the Secretary of State to waive the restrictions if a transfer "is important to Azerbaijan's border security," which would seem to obtain here. Without knowing more about which equipment specifically is under discussion, it's hard to say what it most likely would be used for. But the Azerbaijani appeal is an interesting one, focusing so heavily on the threat from Iran. This was something notable on The Bug Pit's recent visit to Baku, how government officials repeatedly emphasized the threat from Iran. A cynic would say that Baku is ginning up the threat to gain Western sympathy, and possibly concrete support like arms sales. But it's also true that Iran has been rhetorically aggressive recently, and that Azerbaijan's strategic interests in the Caspian are potentially threatened by Iran. So what may be happening is that Baku sees an opening, while the world is concerned about Iran, to dovetail its strategic interests with those of the U.S. and others who distrust Iran.
Anyway, the issue for both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides on this issue seems to be less about the particular equipment and more about whether Azerbaijan should be isolated because of Karabakh or more closely embraced by the West. Berman's letter alluded to the "message that such a sale would send to the regional parties," and Adil Baguirov of the U.S. Azeris Network told The Bug Pit, Azerbaijan wants a concrete symbol of support from the West:
The truth is it can get all the virtually same hardware from elsewhere, probably even cheaper - but the point is to get the necessary military hardware from a partner, with whom the allied relationship has been described as "strategic" by multiple Ambassadors (Harnish, Derse, Bryza) and even President Bush. As Azerbaijan has been sending real combat troops to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and did a bunch of other things for and with U.S., it naturally wants to be able to get the military and security hardware it needs from its Western partner.
In that, the situation seems analagous to those of Georgia and Uzbekistan, which also are seeking U.S. military equipment less because of the equipment itself but more because of the symbolic value. Will that appeal work for Azerbaijan?