Of Course, I Switched Sides on Armenia and Azerbaijan. Here’s Why

Azerbaijanis occasionally put it like a “gotcha”: A decade ago, I was more sympathetic to their position than Armenia’s.

This is true.

With a nod and a wink, or perhaps their own projection, they then suggest that Armenia or the “Armenian lobby” has to pay me. What else could possibly explain a change in my policy rule?

sorry to disappoint you. Neither Armenia, Azerbaijan nor any other foreign state, interest group or ethnic lobby pays me for my writing or research; I’m not the Atlantic Council or Georgetown University. I am fortunate to work at an institution that offers me both a modest salary and a small budget for travel, so I never have to compromise on academic integrity. That some Azerbaijanis accept money as a motive is itself a projection. It reveals their frame of reference and perhaps reflects more on the norms in Baku. (I received a rug after a conference in Azerbaijan. Our cats crushed it immediately).

So why do I write so often? Three reasons. First of all I enjoy it. Writing helps me think through complex issues in a way that’s often not possible when exposed to the cloak of government service. Second, it’s a publish-or-perish world. My writing style may be chafing, but that’s because I’d rather speak clearly than obfuscate for diplomatic reasons, fear of criticism, or concern that public speaking might undermine my ability to return to government service. As the old British saying goes, “In for a penny, in for a pound”. Finally, it is a defense against intellectual atrophy. My academic background is in Iranian Studies, but the world is interconnected. Every few years, I delve into a new country or region: the Kurds, Iraq, Turkey, Morocco, the Horn of Africa, the African Great Lakes region, or Taiwan to allow for comparative analysis and encourage learning force.

That’s why I’m writing about the South Caucasus. Until I criticized Baku, Azerbaijanis in general had no problem with my addressing the region. Rather than questioning my integrity because they don’t like my conclusions or policies, it might be more productive for Azerbaijanis to ask what has changed over the past decade that has undermined Azerbaijan’s reputation or led to a reassessment of US interests could lead to in the South Caucasus.

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democracy: Azerbaijani Ilham Aliyev is approaching his 20th birthdayth year in office. In the last ten years, Azerbaijan has lost 14 points in the Freedom House ranking. Among the 56 countries classified as “not free,” Freedom House ranked Azerbaijan as “the worst of the worst,” tied with Burma and China. Armenia is far from perfect; Freedom House only rates it as “partially free”, but it has improved a lot over the last decade, when it was ranked only marginally better than Azerbaijan. Today, four years after its Velvet Revolution, Armenia ranks ahead of Bosnia and on par with the Philippines, while Azerbaijan fares worse than Cuba and Iran. Elections in Armenia are important. Not in Baku.

Russia: Historically, Armenia has close ties with Russia. This is not only because of cultural and religious ties, but also because of Russia’s large Armenian diaspora in Russia. Armenia’s ties to Russia are somewhat analogous to Israel’s complex relationship with Moscow. However, there are differences: Armenia hosts a Russian military base in Gyumri. This base, the perimeter of which I have circled to casually observe its activity (or rather its lack of), is a legacy of the Soviet era. Armenians accept it as a trip wire against the threat of Armenian aggression by Turkey or Azerbaijan, while Russians like the illusion of influence. While Azerbaijani propaganda labels Armenia as a Russian vassal, this sounds false to anyone experienced in the country. Ironically, over the past decade, Azerbaijan has consciously oriented itself closer to Russia. Similar to Turkey, a double game is played here.

Turkey: A decade ago I believed that Azerbaijan was an ally in the war on terrorism. His strength was his independence. I visited Baku for a conference in 2013 and stayed at my own expense to give a lecture at Khazar University, travel the country and research for a book chapter examining how Azerbaijan manages its complex relationship with Iran. From time to time I would attend closed round table lunches at the Azerbaijani embassy or the occasional reception. The Azerbaijani Embassy then spooked me. Ironically, I didn’t realize it at first: my kids were small and I was too busy changing diapers to get dressed and go to events. Azerbaijani diplomats then apologized and said that the Turkish Foreign Ministry demarched their Azerbaijani counterparts with a list of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Jewish critics that Turkey had decided to blacklist Azerbaijan and had also demanded a ban on Azerbaijan. There had been no doubt that Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan was turning into a terror sympathizer, if not a sponsor: it embraced Hamas, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate and even the Islamic State. The head of Turkey’s secret service was a well-known partisan with Iran. At this point I began to wonder how independent Azerbaijan was or would remain. Now, well over a decade ago, Aliyev looks less like the president of a proud and independent country and more like a provincial governor in Turkey kissing the would-be sultan’s ring in Ankara. In other words, Erdoganism has bled Turkey’s influence dry in Washington. Today Aliyev is following suit.

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Iran: I am a hawk when it comes to US-Iran relations for two reasons: first, the Islamic Republic’s ideology is unrepentantly revisionist; Tehran cannot compromise on exporting the revolution, enshrined in its founding documents as that of the regime right to exist. Second, Iranian officials view diplomacy with the West as an asymmetric war strategy rather than a means of conflict resolution. As a young Ph.D. Student, I studied in Isfahan and lived in a predominantly Armenian neighborhood, so I see the relationship between Yerevan and Tehran on diaspora issues. At the same time, I am still uncomfortable with Armenia’s relationship with Iran. Today, Armenia’s ties to Iran are more a matter of necessity than choice. The double blockade by both Azerbaijan and Turkey gives Armenia no opportunities to export agricultural goods and products or import fuel beyond Iran and Georgia. As a pragmatist, I recognize that the only way to solve this is to end the blockade of Azerbaijan and Turkey. While Armenia’s links with Iran are necessary, Azerbaijan’s links are an option. While Azerbaijan rests on its former reputation as an opponent of Iran, Aliyev’s trade with Tehran was on par with Armenia’s until 2020 and likely surpasses Armenia’s today.

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Foreign policy debates can be bumpy, but the most successful groups are those that seek to persuade rather than demonize. In practice, Armenian groups – even some who have demonized political opponents in the past – recognize that calm discussion and trying to persuade those with whom they disagree outweigh the usefulness of trying to punish them. However, Azerbaijan’s approach is less mature. Increasingly, the main concern of Azerbaijani diplomats and community leaders appears to be ingratiating themselves with polemics with Aliyev. Walk ad hominem may win applause in Baku, but it loses influence in Washington because it suggests an inability to win an argument based on facts.

So, has my position shifted regarding US comparative policy towards Azerbaijan and Armenia? Absolutely. Not only is the region not static, but I’ve been listening and learning.

dr Michael Rubin has been a Contributing Editor and Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) since 1945. dr Rubin is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books dealing with diplomacy, Iranian history, Arabic culture, Kurdish studies and Shia politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019 ); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

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