Not surprisingly, the main motive for the military aid is oil.
The Biden administration’s hypocrisy knows no bounds when it comes to human rights. Nearly every day, we hear pious condemnations of Russia and China for their human rights abuses—whether in Ukraine or toward the Uyghurs—and sermons about how the U.S. has to fight a new global war on authoritarian regimes.
At the same time, the U.S. continues to escalate its military operations in Ukraine, Somalia and in the Middle East, while supporting regimes notorious for human rights abuses like Saudi Arabia, which has waged a genocidal war on Yemen; and Rwanda, which is again on the assault in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Completely overlooked is the Biden administration’s policy toward Azerbaijan, which is so bad that it has aroused opposition from such cheerleaders for U.S. foreign policy as Adam Schiff (D-CA), the former Chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In the past month, the Biden administration has condemned a blockade imposed on the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijanis, while at the same time extending a waiver for the second year in a row allowing provision of $100 million in military aid to Azerbaijan that was restricted over Baku’s September-October 2020 conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Initiated by protesters who allege that Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-proclaimed government is carrying out an illegal mining operation, the blockade—enabed by Russian peacekeepers who have done nothing to end it—is causing severe hardship for the people living there as a result of food and medicine shortages.
During the 2020 war, Azerbaijan had committed large-scale ethnic cleansing and war crimes that included the burning and destruction of villages. A Human Rights Watch on-site investigation in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, found numerous incidents in which Azerbaijan’s forces used cluster munitions and artillery rockets or other weapons that did not distinguish between military targets and civilians.
While campaigning for the presidency, the Biden-Harris campaign had released a statement condemning the Trump administration for inaction during the latter war. But Biden is not just inactive; his administration is directy complicit with Azeri crimes—as was Trump’s and Obama’s which also extended the waiver.
The waiver applies to Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act banning direct U.S. aid to Azerbaijan; it allows the U.S. to provide military assistance to Azerbaijan so long as the Secretary of State certifies that such assistance does not contribute to conflict in the region.
Once the U.S. provides military aid to a nation, however, it has no way of controlling how the weaponry will be used.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report confirmed that the Department of State and Pentagon have failed to meet statutory reporting requirements to Congress on the impact of U.S. assistance on the military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In the past U.S. military aid has extended to Azerbaijan’s border security police who are directly involved in the fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. The U.S. has also provided sophisticated communications and electronics equipment to Azerbaijan, and helped finance a naval buildup in the Caspian Sea, which has large oil deposits.
Robert Menendez stated: “As Azerbaijan continues to further occupy territory from its violent assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, during which more than 6,500 people died and more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians were displaced in 2020, it simply makes no sense to say that U.S. assistance and training has not impacted its military balance with Armenia.”
Another Resource War
Filmmaker Peter Bahlawanian, who has produced a series of documentaries on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and is working on a documentary on the Aliyev dynasty in Azerbaijan, told CovertAction Magazine in an exclusive interview that the Biden administration’s policy was “hypocritical in condemning the blockade while sustaining $100 million in arms shipments.”
The reason they were doing it, he said, was “to fight Iran. Azerbaijan and Turkey are allies and both are against Iran. However, they can use U.S. weapons to fight Armenians and further the Azeri goal of taking control of the lands around Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh].”
According to Bahlawanian, these lands are especially valued today because they “were found to be sitting on minerals from which they could make microchips. The Azeris have even made prearranged deals—for example with the Anglo-Asian Mining Company [on whose board sits John Sununu, former New Hampshire Governor and George H.W. Bush’s Chief of Staff], which paid them millions of dollars ahead of time.”
Azeri leader Ilham Aliyev “feels that he can do whatever he wants in Artsakh,” Bahlawanian said, “because he is supported by Turkey, which helps with war planning and provides Aliyev with drones that can be used to access remote mountainous regions in Artsakh.”
Also, whereas Russia in the past supported the Armenians and was supposed to be acting as peacekeepers, they have backed off more recently and allowed the blockade to go forward because they increasingly ship oil through Azerbaijan to get around Western sanctions and have soured on Armenia’s current Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan.
The U.S. for its part continues the $100 million in annual arms supplies to the Azeris because, since the 1990s, it has secured lucrative concessions for oil exploration and, according to Bahlawanian, has significant business investment in Azerbaijan.
Overlooked is not only Azerbaijan’s ugly record in Nagorno-Karabakah but also its domestic repression: Foreign Policy Magazine reported in 2015 that it had twice as many political prisoners as Russia and Belarus combined.
Israel has also provided significant military support to Azerbaijan, which provides Israel with about 40% of its oil imports.
A senior source in the Israeli Defense Ministry told the Asia Times that “Azerbaijan would not be able to continue its operation [against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh] at this intensity without our support.”
Vitally Important Cork in the Bottle
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, described Azerbaijan in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard as the “vitally important cork in the bottle containing the riches of the Caspian Sea Basin and Central Asia.”
In September 1995, Brzezinski was asked to carry a letter from President Bill Clinton to Azerbaijan’s President Heydar Aliyev asking him to give the U.S. preference to two pipelines, which could transport oil through Turkey while bypassing Russia and Iran (one, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, was completed in 2005). In return, Clinton said he promised to resolve the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, which had resulted in more than 30,000 dead at that time.
When Aliyev led an armed uprising in 1993 against Azerbaijan’s elected president, Abulfaz Elchibey, he was assisted by mercenaries in the employ of Mega Oil, which had employed veterans of the secret war in Laos and the Iran-Contra affair, notably Richard V. Secord and “Heinie” Aderholt.
In 1994, Aliyev signed what he called the “deal of the century,” in which a consortium called the Azerbaijan International Operation Company (AIOC) agreed to spend $7.4 billion to develop three major oil fields in the Caspian Sea: Azeri, Chirag and Guneshli. The Soviets had banned off-shore drilling in the Caspian Sea, which had been designated as a nature reserve and possessed some of the world’s largest freshwater fish.
U.S. companies—Amoco, McDermott, Unocal, and Pennzoil—collectively took more than 40% of the king’s ransom, by far the largest share, with Exxon joining AIOC the following year.
In 1996, Clinton had received Aliyev at the White House with full honors, witnessed the signing of a new Amoco oil exploration deal and promised to lobby Congress to lift economic sanctions on Azerbaijan, which had been imposed because of its war with Armenia. Clinton said that, “by working closely with Azerbaijan to tap the Caspian’s resources, we not only help Azerbaijan to prosper, we also help diversify our energy supply and strengthen our energy security.”
Aliyev on the same visit met with Defense Secretary William Cohen to discuss stronger U.S.-Azerbaijani defense cooperation and possible American training of the Azerbaijani army.
U.S. security ties to Azerbaijan increased under the rule of Heydar’s son, Ilham (2003-present), who actively participated in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program, and provided overflight, refueling, and landing rights for U.S. and coalition aircraft bound for Afghanistan and Iraq, while allowing fuel, clothing, and food used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to travel through Baku.
Several hundred Azeri forces also served in Afghanistan and Iraq in support of U.S. war aims.
As part of the quid pro quo, the U.S. helped train Azerbaijani naval special forces and donated patrol boats, largely in an attempt to try to help Azerbaijan stand up for itself against Iran’s military presence in the Caspian Sea.
Foreign Policy Magazine reported in 2015 on the Azeri lobby which had spent $4 million in the past year papering over the Aliyev regime’s dismal human rights record by presenting itself to the United States as a loyal partner in the “War on Terror,” a stalwart friend to Israel, and an important energy supplier.
That February, the Azerbaijani embassy increased the monthly retainer of its main lobbyist, the Podesta Group, from $50,000 to $75,000. The Podesta Group’s filings revealed hundreds of contacts with congressional offices, executive branch agencies, members of the media, and think tanks—which offered a powerful counter to the Armenian lobby, which also exercises considerable clout in Congress.
A congressional staffer who wished to remain anonymous described receptions organized by pro-regime groups, such as the Azerbaijan America Alliance, where up to 20 members of Congress at a time would “line up at the podium” waiting for their turn to praise Azerbaijan for its economic successes, its partnership with the United States, and its friendship with Israel.
Emin Milli, an Azerbaijan activist who spent 17 months in prison on trumped up charges, said that when a U.S. congressman praised the Aliyev regime, they were “confirming the legitimacy of a mafia. The legitimacy of thugs. The legitimacy of a group of people who kill, torture, and put people in jail just for expressing their opinion.”
Dire Humanitarian Crisis to Which Nobody Is Paying Attention
In his interview with CAM, Peter Bahlawanian emphasized the cruelty of Azeri blockade of Artsakh, which is designed to isolate and starve the people into submission.
“Azeris are taught to hate the Armenians from a young age; like Jews in Nazi Germany; to view them as subhuman,” Bahlawanian said. “In September they were planning to invade Artsakh but when Nancy Pelosi [who is backed by the Armenian lobby] made a surprise visit to the region they held back. So they are trying another approach with this blockade; trying to starve the people by blocking food and medicine. Artsakh is a very mountainous area that is difficult to get to generally, and now it has become like a refugee camp. Aliyev has said that ‘we’ll give the right of passage to those who want to leave.’ This is because he wants to take over the land.”
The Azeris have defended their actions by noting that the UN Security Council has repeatedly condemned Armenia’s invasion of Azerbaijan and that Armenia occupied Nagorno-Karabakh along with one-fourth of Azeri territory, while the Azeris never occupied any Armenian territory.
After the dissolution of the USSR, Azerbaijan and Armenia were recognised as independent states with their Soviet-drawn borders, with international law recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory and the presence of Armenian military forces as occupation. Azerbaijan in turn has the right, under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, to act in self-defense.
Azeris claim to have been victims of Armenia army atrocities and became refugees along with thousands of Kurds who had to flee the old Kurdish capital of Lachin after Armenian forces set it ablaze in the 1992-1994 war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The latter war, they say, was triggered when Armenian forces invaded the region as the USSR was falling apart, carrying out a massacre of the civilian population of the Azerbaijani city of Khojaly and ethnically cleansing Azerbaijanis.
Recent negotiations have been impeded because of the refusal of Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan to consider the return of any occupied territories to Azerbaijan.
In his interview with CAM, Bahlawanian countered the Azeri narrative by emphasizing that the people of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) voted overwhelmingly (99%–with 87% voter turnout) for their autonomy from Azerbaijan in a 1991 referendum before the fall of the Soviet Union.
Bahlawanian also said that Armenian leaders did not want to incorporate Artsak into Armenia in the past because they did not want to alienate the Russians who, since the Stalin era, had wanted to keep Armenia divided and weak so they could better control it.
The Desire to Live
Bahlawanian’s 2021 documentary “The Desire to Live”—which has been accepted at 150 film festivals and won 136 awards—juxtaposes the beauty of Artsakh and its mountainous terrain with the brutality of the Azeri attack during the 2020 war.
The film includes interviews with people living in small villages in Artsakh who experienced horrible atrocities and the deaths of loved ones and chronicles their struggle to stay alive.
One woman who worked at the hospital in Artsakh during the Azeri onslaught said that she saw scenes out of a horror movie: wounded patients with missing arms and jaws and eyes hanging out that gives her nightmares to this day.
Another man from the Karmar Shuka village, who had worked for 37 years at the power station and suffered shrapnel wounds, said that the village had once been a nice place; its vineyards even produced vodka. But since the wars came, much has been burned—including his own house—and life is now extremely difficult. At 82, his main hope is for a peaceful life for his 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren and that they have a way to earn a living.
Despite the atrocities and hardships that they had faced, many of the people interviewed in the film were defiant: One said that “their village,” whatever weapons were brought to bear on it, would “never be defeated,” while another rued how the rest of the world had forgotten about the people of Artsakh and thrown them “under a bus.”
Religious Dimension to War
One thing that comes out in the film is the religious component of the war: The Armenians are Christians while Azeris are predominantly Muslims.
Bahlawanian told CAM that, during the 2020 war, the Azeris had employed ex-Syrian jihadists, Hezbollah veterans and al-Qaeda to fight the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the 1990s, Afghan mujahadin fighters were also used by the U.S. to foment the coup that brought Aliyev to power.
So the U.S. is again on the side of radical Islam when they are supposedly fighting a War on Terror.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 46. ↑
Dan Morgan and David B. Ottaway, “Pipe Dreams—The Struggle for Caspian Oil,” The Washington Post, October 4, 1998, A1. ↑
Alexis Rowell, “U.S. Mercenaries Fight in Azerbaijan,” CovertAction Quarterly, Spring 1994, 23-25. ↑
Lutz Kleveman, The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 78, 79. ↑
Morgan and Ottaway, “Pipe Dreams – The Struggle for Caspian Oil”; Galib Bashirov, “U.S. Foreign Policy Towards Azerbaijan, 1991-2015,” Ph.D. Thesis, Florida International University, 2017. ↑
Peter Dale Scott, The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire and the Future of America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 165. ↑
Stephen Kinzer, “Azerbaijan Has Reason to Swagger: Oil Deposits,” The New York Times, September 14, 1997. The UN Security Council in 1993 called on Armenia to withdraw its troops from Azerbaijan. ↑
In 2013, U.S. Special Forces trained Azeri counterparts in a supposed counter-narcotics mission. During a July 2010 visit to Azerbaijan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lied when she said that Azerbaijan had “made tremendous progress in democratization.” ↑
Azeris point to the existence of a powerful Armenian lobby, particularly in California, which effectively lobbies Congress and shapes public opinion about the conflict in the U.S. to make Armenians look like the victims. ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of five books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019), The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018), and Warmonger. How Clinton’s Malign Foreign Policy Launched the U.S. Trajectory From Bush II to Biden (Clarity Press, 2023).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.