The brewing rapprochement between the United States and Iran, signified by the Geneva nuclear deal signed in January, seems likely to scramble American strategic priorities in the South Caucasus, especially for Azerbaijan.
In recent years, the United States deemphasized democratization in its dealings with Azerbaijan on account of Baku’s strategic position as Iran’s northern neighbour, a position that made it a key cog in the West’s containment policy against Tehran. But now that the United States -- along with other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany – are taking the first steps toward re-establishing a working relationship with Iran, the justification for Washington’s tolerance of Baku rights abuses is starting to recede.
The Joint Action Plan, also known as the Geneva interim agreement, is designed to roll back aspects of Iran's controversial nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. This deal is seen as a stepping stone to a comprehensive pact that ensures the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. Prior to reaching agreement, the nuclear standoff had prompted increasingly tight US-led sanctions against Iran, and raised the prospects of military action.
If developments now unfold as envisioned, the regional order in the Middle East and Caspian Basin could turn upside down. Diplomatic normalization would certainly change the region’s existing energy-export calculus. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the ensuing diplomatic break with Tehran, the exclusion of Iran from regional security plans and energy-related projects has been a permanent feature of American policy.
Many regional players have come to see opposition to Iran and alignment with the United States as strategically beneficial for them. Azerbaijan is a case in point. Since it gained independence in 1991, Baku has sought the West's support to achieve its overriding national objective: regaining control over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Striving to burnish its pro-Western credentials, Baku was happy to accommodate the United States by excluding Iran from Western-led energy consortia and the regional pipelines that bring Caspian oil and gas to the world markets. US laws forbidding US companies to partner with Iranian entities made that a necessity.
Establishing a partnership with NATO and developing close security cooperation with Israel helped bolster Baku's strategic importance for Washington: Lots of experts speculated that Azerbaijan could emerge as a forward operating area for military operations, in the event of a US and/or Israeli strike against Iran. In exchange, President Ilham Aliyev’s administration expected, and mostly got, the West to turn a blind eye to its authoritarian governing practices, especially its muzzling of a free press and its crackdown on political dissent.
The Geneva interim agreement challenges existing arrangements. Not only the probability of a military strike is fading, but also the rise of Sunni jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East is pushing the US and Shi’a Iran towards at least some sort of tacit cooperation -- even without waiting for a final agreement on the nuclear issue. While a full-fledged strategic realignment is still far off, there is an obvious convergence of interests in countering the Al-Qaeda-type groups, and, at least in Iraq, some behind-the-scenes cooperation seems already to be occurring.
In this context, emphasising Azerbaijan's anti-Iranian credentials as a strategic asset for the United States, as some American neoconservative pundits do, is counter-productive to US national security interests. Previously, few questioned those promoting a “strategic” alliance with Azerbaijan to counter Iran. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s war-mongering rhetoric and actions made it easy for anyone in Washington to be an unquestioning backer of Baku. But a more moderate Iranian incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, now makes it far harder to argue that Iran is a perpetual enemy of the United States and a threat to Western interests.
For its part, Azerbaijan is unlikely to welcome a possible US-Iranian rapprochement. As it is, Azerbaijan is facing an uncertain future as an energy supplier. The shale gas boom in North America and declining demand in Europe threaten the profitability of Azerbaijani energy resources and pipeline projects. Iran’s potential re-emergence as a global energy player could seriously choke Azerbaijan’s existing revenue streams, as investors could easily find Tehran a more appealing option than Baku.
While Aliyev's administration might not be happy about recent developments, there is little it can do to derail them. Unlike Israel and Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan has no leverage to publicly oppose the rapprochement between the US and Iran without paying a steep price in terms of its relations with Washington. And sitting back and quietly hoping that Israel can torpedo the deal, as seems to be the preference of some policymakers in Baku, is probably not a winning strategy. The Obama-Kerry team has shown that it is determined to make the final agreement happen.
For Aliyev’s team, this means that it will have to find a different basis to articulate its strategic importance for the West. Changing geopolitical circumstances, especially if the nuclear deal places Iran on a more liberal domestic political trajectory, will make it much more difficult for the Azerbaijani government to justify its authoritarian tendencies.
The way to redefine the strategic partnership with the United States and EU would be for Azerbaijan to commit itself to shared values of democracy, human rights and the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Such a commitment could pay some diplomatic dividends in itself, as the case of neighbouring Georgia has shown. And in the context of engagement with Iran, a democratizing Azerbaijan, with its mainly Shi’a Muslim population, would remain a strategic asset in Washington’s eyes.
Instead of seizing an opportunity, Baku is currently sending all the wrong messages: there are still dozens of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including a former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, and President Aliyev is maintaining a bellicose posture on the Karabakh question.
While the anti-Iranian rationale for the strategic partnership between the West and Azerbaijan is starting to crack, the Azerbaijani government is showing neither the vision nor the political will to redefine its strategic priorities. Failure to adjust could, sooner or later, render Azerbaijan geopolitically irrelevant.
Richard Kauzlarich is a former US ambassador in Azerbaijan and is currently Adjunct Professor at the School of Public Policy, George Mason University.