Azerbaijanis occasionally trot it out like a ‘gotcha’: A decade ago, I was more sympathetic toward their position than I was to Armenia’s.
That is true.
With a nod and a wink or perhaps their own projection, they then suggest Armenia or the “Armenian lobby” must pay me. What else could possibly explain a change in my policy prescription?
Sorry to disappoint. Neither Armenia, Azerbaijan nor, for that matter, any other foreign state, interest, or ethnic lobby pays me for my writing or research; I am not the Atlantic Council or Georgetown University. I am fortunate to work at an institution that provides me with both a modest salary and a small budget for travel so that I need never compromise academic integrity. That some Azerbaijanis assume money is a motive is projection on their part. It exposes their frame of reference and perhaps reflects more on norms in Baku. (I did receive a carpet after one Azerbaijan conference. Our cats promptly shredded it).
So why do I write so frequently? Three reasons. First, I enjoy it. Writing helps me think through complex problems in a way often not possible when subject to the compartmentalization of government service. Secondly, it is a publish-or-perish world. My writing style might chafe, but that is because I would rather speak clearly than obfuscate for the sake of diplomatic nicety, fear of criticism, or concern that public expression could undermine an ability to return to government service. As the old British saying goes, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Lastly, it is a defense against intellectual atrophy. My academic background is in Iranian studies, but the world is interlinked. Every few years, I delve into a new country or region: the Kurds, Iraq, Turkey, Morocco, the Horn of Africa, Africa’s Great Lakes region, or Taiwan to both enable comparative analysis and force myself to learn.
That is why I write about the South Caucasus. Until I criticized Baku, Azerbaijanis generally had no issue with me addressing the region. Rather than question my integrity because they do not like my conclusions or policy prescriptions, it might be more productive if Azerbaijanis would ask what has changed over the last decade that could erode Azerbaijan’s reputation or lead to a reassessment of U.S. interests in the South Caucasus.
Democracy: Azerbaijani Ilham Aliyev is approaching his 20th year in office. Over the last decade, Azerbaijan has declined 14 points in Freedom House rankings. Among the 56 countries designated “not free,” Freedom House categorized Azerbaijan as “the worst of the worst,” on par with Burma and China. Armenia is far from perfect; Freedom House rates it only “partly free,” but it has improved greatly over the past decade, when it ranked only marginally better than Azerbaijan. Today, four years after its velvet revolution, Armenia ranks above Bosnia and on par with the Philippines, while Azerbaijan scores worse than Cuba and Iran. Elections in Armenia matter. In Baku, they do not.
Russia: Historically, Armenia has tight ties with Russia. This is due to not only cultural and religious ties, but also Russia’s large Armenian diaspora in Russia. Armenia’s ties to Russia are somewhat analogous to Israel’s complex relationship to Moscow. That said, there are differences: Armenia hosts a Russian military base in Gyumri. This base, whose perimeter I have driven around to observe casually its activity (or, rather, lack thereof), is a legacy of the Soviet era. Armenians accept it as a tripwire against the threat of aggression toward Armenia by Turkey or Azerbaijan, while Russians like the illusion of influence. While Azerbaijani propaganda labels Armenia to be a Russian vassal, this rings false to anyone with experience in the country. The irony is that over the last decade, Azerbaijan has deliberately oriented itself closer to Russia. Here, it plays a double game much like Turkey.
Turkey: A decade ago, I bought into the notion that Azerbaijan was an ally in the war against terrorism. Its strength was its independence. I visited Baku in 2013 for a conference and stayed on at my own expense to give a lecture at Khazar University, travel throughout the country, and conduct research for a book chapter exploring how Azerbaijan handled its complex relations with Iran. From time-to-time, I would attend closed roundtable lunches at the Azerbaijani embassy, or the occasional reception. The Azerbaijani embassy subsequently ghosted me. Ironically, I did not notice at first: my kids were young and I was too busy changing diapers to dress up and go to events. Azerbaijani diplomats then apologized, and said that the Turkish Foreign Ministry had demarched their Azerbaijani counterparts with a list of Jewish critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey had decided to blacklist and demanded Azerbaijan ban as well. There had been no doubt that, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey was transforming into a terror sympathizer if not sponsor: It embraced Hamas, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliates, and even the Islamic State. Turkey’s intelligence chief was a well-known partisan toward Iran. It was at that point that I began to question just how independent Azerbaijan was or would remain. Today, far more than a decade ago, Aliyev acts less like the president of a proud and independent country and more like a provincial governor in Turkey kissing the ring of the would-be sultan in Ankara. Put another way, Erdoganism hemorrhaged Turkey’s influence in Washington. Today, Aliyev follows suit.
Iran: I am a hawk when it comes to U.S.-Iran relations for two reasons: First, the Islamic Republic’s ideology is unrepentantly revisionist; Tehran cannot compromise on export of revolution since it is enshrined in its founding documents as the regime’s raison d’être. Second, Iranian officials approach diplomacy with the West as an asymmetric warfare strategy rather than a means to resolve conflict. As a young Ph.D. student, I studied in Isfahan, and lived in a predominantly Armenian neighborhood and so recognize diaspora affairs color Yerevan-Tehran ties. At the same time, I remain uncomfortable with Armenia’s relationship with Iran. Today, Armenia’s ties to Iran are a matter of necessity rather than choice. The double blockade by both Azerbaijan and Turkey give Armenia no options beyond Iran and Georgia to export agricultural goods and produce, or import fuel. As a pragmatist, I recognize that the only way to resolve this is to end Azerbaijan and Turkey’s blockade. While Armenia’s ties to Iran are of necessity, Azerbaijan’s are of choice. While Azerbaijan coasts on its previous reputation as standing in opposition to Iran, by 2020, Aliyev’s trade with Tehran was on par with Armenia’s, and today likely exceeds Armenia’s.
Foreign policy debate can be rough-and-tumble, but the most successful groups are those who seek to convince rather than demonize. In practice, Armenians groups—even some that in the past demonized policy opponents—realize that quiet discussion and an effort to convince those with whom they disagree trumps the utility of seeking to punish them. Azerbaijan’s approach, though, is less mature. The primary effort of Azerbaijani diplomats and community leaders increasingly appears to be to ingratiate themselves to Aliyev with polemics. To go ad hominem may win applause in Baku but, in Washington, it forfeits influence because it suggests an inability to win an argument based on fact.
So, has my position shifted with regard to comparative U.S. policy toward Azerbaijan and Armenia? Absolutely. Not only is the region not static, but I also listened and learned.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite 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).