Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe and Eurasian Subcommittee, which was investigating Iranian strategy, influence, and interests in the Caucasus. As always, there’s good news and bad news from the region. Azerbaijan remains a stalwart U.S. ally intolerant of Iranian approaches. Georgia is as well, but after its October election remains very much in play. Turkey’s efforts to subvert sanctions are well known. The greater problem today is Armenia:
- According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, in 2008, U.S. diplomats concluded that Armenia shipped Iran weaponry, which Iran then used to kill Americans.
- Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, operates in Yerevan, and Iranian businesses dot the city.
- In October 2011, a member of Armenia’s Nuclear Energy Organization told the Iranian press that Tehran had enticed several Armenian nuclear scientists to work in Iran’s nuclear program.
The press attaché at the U.S. embassy writes in response to my post to alert me to an embassy statement disputing Azerbaijani press accounts of U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar’s earlier comments. The correction comes 15 days after the story first appeared in the Azeri press. While the Azeri news agency has now removed the original report in English, it is still available in Azeri.
I will certainly take Ambassador Morningstar’s word against that of a regime that is less than democratic, but the episode highlights well another problem with American diplomacy: The tendency of undemocratic regimes to utilize visits by American diplomats and officials to imply endorsement where none is intended. The Azeris believed they could use Morningstar’s visit to the semi-autonomous Nakhchivan region to suggest American support for the decidedly undemocratic regional government. Likewise, when Secretary of State Clinton visited Armenia, she met with only government officials and gave the opposition a cold shoulder; that was a message that both the Armenian government and its opposition heard loud and clear, even if it was not a message Clinton intended to transmit. It is probably not a coincidence that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to eviscerate any remaining checks and balances immediately after Clinton visited Cairo and heaped praise upon the Egyptian leader.
Azerbaijan is an important American ally for a number of reasons. Unlike Turkey, it remains true to its secular principles. Unlike neighboring Armenia—a country which continues to occupy one-third of Azerbaijan—it remains firmly oriented to the West and does not readily do Russia’s and Iran’s bidding. And unlike Iran to its south, its majority Shi’ite Muslim population realizes that empty religious rhetoric is no panacea.
Azerbaijan does have its flaws, however. Chief among them is its leadership’s reticence to reform and failure to make much if any progress in the Azeri peoples’ demands to move toward democracy. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan firmly in the “Not Free” camp. Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Azerbaijani press freedom even below that of Turkey and Russia, a depth which censors and security forces must go out of their way to achieve.
Conservatives castigated President Obama for bowing before the Saudi king and to the Japanese emperor. To be fair, President George W. Bush also bowed to the Saudi king; when it comes to Saudi Arabia, sycophancy is too often bipartisan. Nevertheless, it should be covered in Diplomacy 101 that American officials should not bow down before foreign leaders, let alone their statues.
Alas, that message seems not to have been transmitted to Richard Morningstar, the new U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. Azeri Report has released a photograph of Morningstar, a long-time diplomat, bowing before a statue of Heydar Aliyev, who ruled Azerbaijan from shortly after its independence until his death in 2003.