Vol. 3, No. 18 (September 15, 2010)

Promoting enduring US-Azerbaijan ties

Gulshan Pashayeva
Head of Department
Foreign Policy Analysis Department 
Center for Strategic Studies, Baku, Azerbaijan

In 2011, Azerbaijan will mark the 20th anniversary of the recovery of its independence, and during that period, it has had close ties with the United States, despite all the vicissitudes of the international system.  The United States was among the first to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence (December 25, 1991) and to establish bilateral ties (February 28, 1992).  Later in 1992, each country opened an embassy in the capital of the other.  Since that year, there have been 74 bilateral agreements signed between Azerbaijan and the United States, and these provide the basis for cooperation in many areas.  
Speaking to the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku on February 19, 2010, William Burns, the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, pointed out that Washington wants closer ties and broader cooperation with Azerbaijan and values its bilateral relations with this country.  “Our history of shared relationships with Azerbaijan is a long and fruitful one on many fronts, with the notable success of the Baku-Tbilisi pipeline as only one example of that cooperative and collaborative work,” Burns said (VoaNews.com 2010).  

Relations between the two countries have gone through some complicated times, especially at the outset given the disruption of economic ties, two coups, general instability, and the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Despite the establishment of a ceasefire in May 1994 thanks to Russian efforts and the creation of the OSCE Minsk Group, there have not yet been any tangible results in efforts to resolve that conflict.

Because of the influence of the Armenian community in the United States, the US Congress passed legislation prohibiting direct assistance to Azerbaijan, the so-called Section 907 of the US Freedom Support Act, given what its authors said was Azerbaijan’s “continued blockade” of Armenia.  But as Thomas Goltz has pointed out, “Baku imposed a trade embargo, and for the very good reason that it thought that conducting business as usual with the enemy is not a particularly good idea in time of war.  Ask Lincoln or Wilson or Roosevelt or Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon about that.”  Indeed, Goltz continues, “Section 907 (a) would seem to be one of the most successful lobbying efforts ever made.  An influence group with a very specific agenda got in, got the job done and then got out, erasing almost all traces of its activity in the corridors of power” (Goltz 1996).

That measure has cast a shadow on relations between the two countries and provided support for the view in Baku that “ethnic groups like Armenian Americans can import their hatred into U.S. politics and turn it into government policy and legal precedent of that country” (Pashayev 2009, p. 113).  But despite that shadow, U.S.-Azerbaijani relations nevertheless developed rapidly during the Clinton administration (1993-2001) largely because of Washington’s focus on the development of energy resources in non-OPEC countries. 

On September 20, 1994 the “Contract of the Century” was signed between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey and a consortium of international companies, including US majors.  This landmark event changed the economic landscape of the entire region and led to the development of two pipelines—the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum natural gas pipeline (also known as the South Caucasus Pipeline).

“Another highlight of the rapidly developing relationship,” as Hafiz Pashayev, Azerbaijan’s first ambassador to Washington, has noted, “was the first official visit of President Heydar Aliyev to the United States in 1997,” where he met “with President Bill Clinton, Vice-President Albert Gore and other high-ranking U.S. government officials, as well as with representatives of major energy companies…  The Joint Statement of Presidents Aliyev and Clinton highlighted the importance of the U.S.-Azerbaijan relations for the peace, stability and prosperity of the region.  President Clinton called the visit a new stage in the development of bilateral relations, while President Aliyev called the visit historic for Azerbaijan-U.S. ties” (Pashayev 2009, pp. 114-115).

U.S.-Azerbaijani relations were further strengthened during the George W. Bush Administration (2001-2009).  The tragic event of 9/11 has completely changed a nature and the dynamics of these bilateral relations.  Azerbaijan’s unequivocal support of the US’s global fight against terrorism led to closer cooperation with U.S. on security matters.  Reflecting that trend, on October 24, 2001, the U.S. Senate adopted a waiver of section 907 giving the President the power to waive Section 907 on an annual basis, something the US leaders have done since that time.  After the waiver of Section 907 by President Bush in 2002, the security cooperation has become more inclusive, including bilateral military ties in the context of Caspian energy and the BTC pipeline security and participation of Azerbaijan in the US-led military missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. 

During the Bush Administration, President Heydar Aliyev and then his successor President Ilham Aliyev visited the US, in February 2003 and in April 2006 respectively.  At the same time, US Vice-President Dick Cheney made an official visit to Azerbaijan in September 2008. 

Despite the international difficulties President Barak Obama has faced over the last two years, he has found in Azerbaijan a reliable ally and strategic partner of the U.S.  But despite that, it must be said, bilateral relations have deteriorated.  President Obama’s support for Armenian-Turkish rapprochement independently of progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the delay in the appointment of a U.S. ambassador in Azerbaijan, US failure to invite President Ilham Aliyev to the 47 country Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, and a Congressional decision to allocate 10 million USD in direct aid to Nagorno-Karabakh have all contributed to this deterioration.

In a June 2010 letter to President Ilham Aliyev, President Obama wrote that “I am aware of the fact that there are serious issues in our relationship, but I am confident that we can address them” (Oguz 2010).  And U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in presenting this letter to President Aliyev, said he had come because he wanted to dispel “concerns in Azerbaijan that we weren’t paying enough attention to them” (Whitlock 2010).

Azerbaijan’s proximity to Afghanistan makes Baku extremely important to the United States, which heavily relies on Azerbaijan’s railroads, ports and airspace to move troops and material.  Less than a month after Gates’ visit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also visited Baku.  She met with President Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and, in discussion of Karabakh, she “urged a peaceful solution to the conflict and pledged continued U.S. support for efforts to negotiate a settlement” (Sheridan 2010).

For US – Azerbaijani relations to recover to their previous level, three things are necessary:  First, Washington must unambiguously declare that Armenia must withdraw from all Azerbaijani territories in order for there to be progress on other fronts.  Second, the US needs to confirm an ambassador for Baku, given that that post has been vacant for more than a year.  And third, the US needs to repeal Section 907 and the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.  Until 907 is eliminated, “Azerbaijan will always view the U.S. as biased and unjust” (Pashayev 2009, p. 128). 


Goltz, Thomas (1996) “A Montana Perspective on International Aid and Ethnic Politics in Azerbaijan”, Virtual Azerbaijan, available at http://www.zerbaijan.com/azeri/goltz1.htm (accessed 12 September, 2010). 

Oguz, Cem (2010) “Azeri-US Relations: Promises Not Enough”, Hurriyet Daily News, 18 July. 

Pashayev, Hafiz (2009) “Azerbaijan-U.S. Relations: From Unjust Sanctions to Strategic Partnership”, in Petersen, Alexandros and Fariz Ismailzade, Azerbaijan in Global Politics: Crafting Foreign Policy, Baku: Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. 

Sheridan, Mary Beth (2010) “In Azerbaijan, Key to Afghanistan Efforts, Clinton Walks Tightrope on Democracy”, The Washington Post, 5 July. 

VoaNews.com (2010) “US-Azerbaijani Relations”, VoaNews.com, 28 February, available at http://www1.voanews.com/policy/editorials/europe/US---Azerbaijani-Relations--85878417.html (accessed 12 September, 2010).

Whitlock, Craig (2010) “Gates Brings Reassurances to Azerbaijan Leader”, The Washington Post, 7 June.