Spring 1997 (5.1)
During her recent confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright identified the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh as a priority of the Clinton foreign policy team. This was most welcome since U.S. involvement in the peaceful settlement of this little-known conflict would enhance America's security interests immeasurably in the volatile, but ever more important Caucasus region.
Unfortunately for Washington, however, it may be too late fully to recover the ground lost during the first four years of the Clinton administration due to its unduly, cautious approach toward the Caspian Sea Basin. If the United States is to secure its enduring national security interests there, it must now play catch-up with the traditional powers of the region (notably, Russia and Iran) in the strategic contest long known as "the Great Game."
Those interests are: the rapid and uninterrupted development of Caspian Sea oil so as to reduce Western dependency on Persian Gulf sources of oil; containment of Iran's Islamic fundamentalism; restraining Russia's lingering expansionist tendencies; creating export opportunities and jobs; and the nurturing of truly independent, pro-Western and democratic states with market-oriented economies. More than any other newly independent state of the region, Azerbaijan has aligned itself with America's interests. Clearly, it deserves our support.
Azerbaijan can be critical to U.S. efforts to diversify oil supplies since it is the key to unlocking the estimated 200 billion barrel hydrocarbon reserves of the Caspian Sea region. The initial oil projects signed thus far in Azerbaijan are expected to produce more than 2 million barrels per day-roughly equivalent to what the U.S. imports from OPEC's Arab members.
Azerbaijan is also on the front line of America's containment policy toward Iran. Although Azerbaijan is a Shi'ite Muslim nation, its government has striven to maintain a secular character. For example, in the face of intense Iranian pressure, Azerbaijan adopted a constitution [in 1995] that calls for a separation of church and state. Furthermore, at Washington's urging, Azerbaijan denied Iran entry into the consortium of countries invited in 1994 to develop its offshore oil resources in the Caspian Sea. It has also firmly resisted Iranian demands that Baku terminate friendly relations with Israel.
Azerbaijan is the only former republic of the Soviet Union with no Russian troops on its territory. Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev has refused to cooperate with Russia on border defense, frustrating Moscow's desire to have a unified defense perimeter in the Caucasus. No less than Iran, Russia has viewed with horror the prospect of the U.S. benefiting from access to new oil resources, export opportunities and a strategically situated pro-Western regime. On June 21, 1996, Iran's foreign minister and the deputy speaker of Russia's Duma stated at a joint press conference that: "Iran and Russia should cooperate with regional states to prevent the presence of [U.S.] power in the Caspian Sea."
Largely in deference to Russia, the Clinton administration has thus far hesitated to deepen its close-working relationship with the government of Azerbaijan, pursuing instead a policy of episodic engagement with Baku.
Regrettably, the cost to American interests of accommodating Russia in this way has been high. According to industry sources, President Aliyev has, since 1994, signed production sharing agreements governing the extraction of some 8 billion barrels of oil that could equate to more than 16 billion in service-related work (read jobs). The preponderance of these contracts has gone to European and Japanese companies that have, with the full support of their respective governments, moved aggressively to develop a presence in Azerbaijan.
Another factor contributing to America's loss of strategic and economic opportunities in Azerbaijan over the past few years has been discriminatory U.S. legislation, notably Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. Thanks to this legislation, Azerbaijan is the only country in the world forbidden by law from receiving direct humanitarian assistance from the United States. Even Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Iran and Iraq-all avowed adversaries of this country-are allowed to obtain U.S. humanitarian assistance.
Due to this prohibition, the United States has been unable to provide [direct] relief assistance [to the Azerbaijani government] for the refugee population dislocated by the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of whom are children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 44 percent of the Azeri refugee children between the ages of one and five are at immediate risk from life-threatening disease. Unfortunately, even after Congress in 1995 created some latitude for the President to waive this prohibition and provide humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan, the administration has not acted decisively.
The time has come to adopt a new, more thoughtful and sustainable policy toward Azerbaijan. The occasion this week of a visit to Washington by Ilham Aliyev-1st vice president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) and son of President Aliyev-affords an excellent opportunity for the Clinton administration to announce the following steps:
First, President Clinton should invite President Aliyev to the White House. This would be a signal to both Iran and Russia that the United States recognizes the strategic significance of Azerbaijan and intends to develop a close, long-term relationship between Washington and Baku.
Second, the administration should immediately launch a high-level diplomatic initiative to seek an equitable settlement to the Nagorno -Karabakh conflict. In so doing, the U.S. could deny Russia its present pretext for continuing adventurism in the region. Once a settlement has been reached, President Clinton should invite the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Washington to sign the peace agreement and cement America's cordial relations with both parties.
Third, the administration should immediately waive the ban on humanitarian assistance to Azerbaijan embodied in Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. Even modest sums could save the lives of many thousands of beleaguered refugees-and provide a tangible demonstration of America's desire to play a constructive role in the Caspian Sea Basin.
As Azerbaijan develops into a new Kuwait, significantly increasing the stakes of "the Great Game," the key question is: will the United States at last begin to act in a more farsighted and proactive manner so as to position itself to succeed in what promises to be the primary new energy play of the 21st century?
S. Rob Sobhani is a lecturer
at Georgetown University and travels frequently to the Caspian
Basin on business.