US interest in Azerbaijan less focused than it used to be

Fri 20 January 2012 06:52 GMT | 10:52 Local Time

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News.Az interviews Alex Jackson, an expert on politics and security in the Caspian region and former editor of the Caucasian Review of Int'l Affairs.

What can be Azerbaijan's role in global security as a new UN Security Council non-permanent member?

 As well as ‘non-traditional’ threats like countering terrorism and tackling the proliferation of drugs and weapons, Azerbaijan’s geostrategic location makes it important for specific security issues. Firstly, there is the avoidance of armed conflict – in other words, preventing a new war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Secondly, acting as an increasingly important link in the transport corridor for NATO supplies to and from Afghanistan. This will become increasingly important as the war there begins to end, particularly if Russia restricts transit over its territory. This is less relevant to the Un Security Council but may still be important.

Thirdly, Azerbaijan is an extremely important state with regard to the crisis in Iran. As a neighbouring state Azerbaijan has a strong interest in avoiding both a nuclear-armed Iran and a war between Israel/the US and Iran. Baku is likely to be very active in the Security Council in assisting efforts to defuse the current crisis.

This month, a delegation of the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan visited Washington, D.C. to participate in the Bilateral Defense Consultations. What is Azerbaijan for the US as a country in a very complicated region, situated between Russia and Iran?

US interest in Azerbaijan is less focused than it once was. The US increasingly sees Azerbaijan only through the lens of its other priorities: the war in Afghanistan and the containment of Iran. The significance which both sides attach to Baku’s assistance in Afghanistan can be seen from the press releases which accompanied the tenth anniversary of the Bilateral Defense Consultations. In these, Azerbaijan emphasised its support in the fight against terror and its role as a transit link to Afghanistan. These are the most valued aspects of Azerbaijan for the US.

 Azerbaijan made it clear that won’t allow to use its territory for  attacks against Iran.  May the West convince Azerbaijan to change its position?

There is no prospect that Azerbaijan would allow its territory to be used against Iran. The outcome would be catastrophic for Azerbaijan’s balanced foreign policy, would open it up to subsequent covert action by Iran, would encourage Iran to form a closer alliance with Armenia, and – just as importantly – would greatly anger Russia. There is nothing which the West could offer which would be able to outweigh these dangers.

Azerbaijan provides ground, air and naval transit for roughly 40% of  U.S. and international coalition´s supplies bound for Afghanistan. How would you assess Azerbaijan’s role in ISAF operations?

Azerbaijan’s role in the ‘Northern Distribution Network’ is important and growing more so. The crisis in US-Pakistan relations has forced Washington to increase the transport of war supplies through the Caspian region, up to around 75% of total transit. This figure will continue to rise, given the problems with Pakistan.

The expected pull-out of most ISAF forces in 2014 will mean that huge quantities of equipment will be shipped back through the Northern Distribution Network. If Russia restricts transit across its soil, in retaliation for an attack on Iran or for the US missile defence network, even more supplies will go through Azerbaijan. So it will be a critical part of the ISAF logistical effort over the next few years.

 
How can the military invasion against Iran influence the situation in the neighboring South Caucasus region and Azerbaijan in particular?

Although there are fears that an attack on Iran would create ‘spillover’ in the South Caucasus, this seems unlikely. The war in Georgia did not create serious problems in other countries, for instance. As the attack would almost certainly be limited to airstrikes, there would not be huge numbers of refugees flooding into other countries. Azerbaijan would be certain to condemn the attack, and Iran would have no interest in creating problems on another front, such as by attacking Western energy infrastructure in Azerbaijan. This would cause too many problems for Tehran.

However, in the long term this situation could create more difficulties. If it leads to a more aggressive and more hostile Iran, then states perceived as ‘pro-Western’ such as Azerbaijan would be the subject of increased pressure from Iran. It may strengthen its alliance with Armenia as a counterweight to Azerbaijan, for instance. More generally, such an attack would create a very unpredictable situation in the whole region. Baku, which is interested in stability above all, is therefore strongly opposed to an attack on Iran.

News.Az

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