On March 13-14, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried and U.S. Special Negotiator for Eurasian Conflicts and U.S. Minsk Group co-chair Ambassador Steven Mann visited Azerbaijan for a two-day official trip.
During their visit, the U.S. officials held talks with President Ilham Aliyev, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, and Minister for Economic Development Heydar Babayev. They also met with local journalists, civil society representatives, and a leader from the main opposition party.
Fried said that the goal of his trip was to examine the situation in the region after the unsuccessful Rambouillet summit, when President Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian failed to agree on a “framework document” covering the key principles of a Karabakh peace process (BakuToday.Net, March 17). He added that there were other discussion topics pertaining to the future of the region, including energy security and the Iranian nuclear program (Zerkalo.az, March 15).
Fried and Mann also toured Georgia and Armenia before stopping in Turkey. In Ankara, Fried met with Turkish officials and discussed the possibility of opening the Turkish-Armenian border (New Anatolian, March 18). Ankara, however, responded that it would keep the border shut until Armenia ends its occupation of Azerbaijan and removes the anti-Turkish clauses from the Armenian Constitution (Zaman.com, March 18).
While in Azerbaijan, U.S. officials discouraged Azerbaijan and Armenia from using military rhetoric and urged Baku and Yerevan to prepare their respective societies for peace, not war. After reiterating their hopes for a possible breakthrough in the peace talks in 2006 and describing the idea of a new war as “catastrophic,” U.S. officials also were reminded of the friendly economic and political relations between the United States and Azerbaijan (Zerkalo.az, March 15).
“At present Azerbaijan adheres to a clear and strong position reflecting the national interests of the country. Nevertheless, the approach doesn’t hinder the continuation of constructive negotiations,” noted Fried (Today.az, March 14).
Even after the disappointing results in Rambouillet, U.S. co-chair Steven Mann was still optimistic. “I think both presidents take the peace process seriously and the communities of both countries support the idea of a peace agreement. No one wants [a new] war,” remarked Mann following the failed negotiations in France last month (Today.az, February 22).
In Azerbaijan, however, local media interpreted the diplomats’ statements in Baku as an attempt to put pressure on Azerbaijan, so that Baku would agree to a peace deal that is not in Azerbaijan’s national interest.
Referring to an anonymous diplomatic source, the independent daily Zerkalo reported that, during their visit, the Washington emissaries had tried to convince President Aliyev to agree to the principles of the OSCE Minsk Group’s recently failed proposal and wanted assurances that Baku would support a possible U.S.-led coalition against Iran (Zerkalo, March 21).
Other experts in Azerbaijan also pointed out the Iranian question and have raised skepticism about the sudden U.S. interest in speeding up the resolution of the Karabakh conflict. In an interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, Azerbaijani political scientist Anar Safikhanov declared that there is something else behind U.S. interest in Azerbaijan.
“The main reason why international mediators, especially Washington, hurry with the resolution of the Karabakh conflict is the deteriorating situation around the Iranian nuclear program. The United States wants peace and stability in the nearby South Caucasus region, so that it could move ahead with its plans to further isolate ‘intractable’ Iran,” stated Safikhanov (NG.ru, March 13).
“The U.S. considers the South Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan, an arena that could be used for isolation of Tehran or as ‘lily pad’ base in case the U.S. would launch a military attack against Iran,” concluded Safikhanov (NG.ru, March 13).
While asked about a possible U.S. military attack on Iran, Fried responded, “We do not think about [the military option] and hope that the international community would convince Tehran to quit its nuclear program” (Regnum.ru, March 14).
Moreover, the Zerkalo article speculated about Moscow’s role in the peace process and stated that Azerbaijan should not count on Russia’s help in balancing U.S. pressure. Moscow has been interested in the status quo in the Karabakh conflict as a mechanism for preserving its own influence in the South Caucasus. This time, however, “Russia decided to abandon its ‘reliably ally and regional outpost’ [Armenia] and its ‘strategic partner’ [Azerbaijan] in favor of the U.S.,” according to the article (Zerkalo, March 21).
Indeed, as a result of Washington’s newfound interest in the South Caucasus, particularly Azerbaijan, official Baku may find itself in a difficult predicament. On the one hand, Azerbaijan will have to balance the U.S. pressure for speeding up the Karabakh peace process with its own demand for resolution of the conflict within the framework of its territorial integrity. On the other hand, Baku should walk a fine line in responding to U.S. demands for closer military and security cooperation with the United States, while at the same time not offending neighboring Russia and Iran.
The Azerbaijani government will not sign an agreement that could jeopardize its territorial integrity either today or in the future. Thus, for the time being, Azerbaijan is likely to play along in improving military-to-military relations with the United States, in hope that this could alleviate the U.S. pressure on issues concerning the unfavorable parts of the Karabakh peace proposal.