Amid Iran Crisis, U.S. Offers Big Military Aid Boost to Azerbaijan

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2017

by Joshua Kucera

As the U.S. has ratcheted up diplomatic and military pressure on Iran, it has been quietly offering neighboring Azerbaijan more than $100 million in military aid. The money appears aimed at countering threats from Tehran.

The U.S. Defense Department allotted $58.6 million in fiscal year 2018 and $42.9 million the following year to Azerbaijan’s border and customs services, according to Pentagon reports to Congress obtained and published by Security Assistance Monitor (SAM), a Washington, D.C., watchdog.

The funding plans represented a significant increase in U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan from previous years, and far outstripped the assistance given to nearly any other country in the region. Over those two fiscal years, the military aid to Azerbaijan would exceed that provided to Georgia, the U.S.’s most loyal and visible partner in the region.

Military aid to Azerbaijan

U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan since 2000 (Security Assistance Monitor)

Moreover, the Pentagon has not released all the budget information for the program for fiscal year 2019, meaning that the real figure spent on the program this year could be well over $42.9 million, the director of SAM, Christina Arabia, told Eurasianet.

The money comes from the Pentagon’s main training and equipping fund, which is subject to looser oversight than the larger State Department-run military aid programs. Over the last two years Azerbaijan was the third-largest recipient of aid from that program, behind only Lebanon and Jordan, “both of which are major strategic U.S. counterterrorism partners,” Arabia said. It’s not clear if the aid was actually delivered. Even if the aid wasn’t delivered, “the fact that DoD is even notifying Congress” of the program “is hugely significant because it went from receiving no aid through this program to being the third-top recipient in” fiscal year 2019, Arabia said.

Both sides, however, have been very quiet about the aid. Recent formal policy statements about U.S. military programs in the area have not mentioned Azerbaijan or the Caspian Sea at all. The Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to written questions about the aid program from Eurasianet, the U.S. Embassy in Baku issued a brief statement: “The United States engages in defense and security enhancement programs, to include border security and counter-proliferation efforts, with willing partner nations around the world.”

Over the years Azerbaijan has gotten a variety of aid from the U.S. to build up its naval and coast guard forces on the oil- and gas- rich Caspian Sea. The Caspian Guard program in the early years of the “war on terror” helped train Azerbaijani naval special forces. The U.S. also has donated second-hand patrol boats to Azerbaijan, as well as to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. But the dollar figure on this new aid program is significantly higher than anything the U.S. has spent before.

From the American perspective, the Caspian Sea is particularly strategically sensitive because it borders Iran, and the U.S. has long quietly worked to help Azerbaijan stand up for itself against the significantly stronger Iranian Caspian military presence. A fascinating series of Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables described a tense 2009 standoff between Iranian and Azerbaijani vessels, and demonstrated the U.S.’s deep involvement in advising Baku on how to resolve the situation and more generally in helping Azerbaijan with its maritime security.

While the documents justifying the new aid don’t explicitly cite Iran, there are several elements that point to a focus on that perceived threat. The fact that the Caspian is a closed sea means the potential threats are already limited. This funding is presented as part of the U.S. European Command’s “Southern Border Security” program, a rubric which would fit Iran and no other of Azerbaijan’s neighbors. The receiving agencies are identified as the border control and customs agency offices in Astara, a coastal Azerbaijani city on the border with Iran.

The timing of the new aid package is noteworthy because while U.S.-Iran tensions have spiked since Donald Trump became president in 2017, Azerbaijan-Iran relations are enjoying a period of relative calm. The signing last year of an agreement to delimit the boundaries of the Caspian Sea removed one persistent irritant. And since President Hassan Rouhani took over from his more Islamist predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, promotion of Shiism abroad – previously one of Baku’s biggest complaints against Tehran – has “become secondary,” wrote Azerbaijani analyst Azad Garibov in a recent piece for the Eurasia Daily Monitor. “[T]he major problems that had generated mutual suspicions and kept bilateral relations strained for most of Azerbaijan’s post-independence history have recently been largely resolved,” Garibov wrote.

That thaw also has been reflected in the bilateral military relationship. Two years ago, Iranian and Azerbaijani warships first began paying friendly calls to each other’s ports. That practice has continued this summer and on July 28 two Iranian corvettes arrived in Baku as part of a friendly international naval competition.

The new funding package is aimed at “counter[ing] transnational threats” and “help[ing] Azerbaijan’s stability by helping its security forces develop the capacity to secure its borders, detect and prevent terrorist operations, counter WMD proliferation, and respond to crises,” David Trachtenberg, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote in a report to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The report was obtained by SAM and provided to Eurasianet.

The money is earmarked for vehicles including 15 high-speed boats, 14 “underwater target detection” systems, 25 pickup trucks, and 34 all-terrain vehicles. The package for Azerbaijan is to include communications equipment including radios, naval radars, and transponders for the Automatic Identification System (a universal tracking system for ships). It also earmarks funds for training on “underwater surveillance.” It does not include anything that would be classified as lethal. The U.S. also will maintain the equipment for two years, after which Azerbaijan takes responsibility.

U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan is nominally restricted by a provision in the law known as Section 907, but since 2001 that restriction has been regularly waived. The most recent waiver was signed in April and allows military aid to Azerbaijan as long as it helps counter terrorism, supports U.S. forces, or contributes to Azerbaijan’s border security, and can’t be used to attack Armenia.

Analyst Emil Sanamyan noted in a blog post, however, that some border guard forces have been involved in fighting with Armenia. Sanamyan was the first to publicly identify the Azerbaijani funding, and noted that while Azerbaijan has been getting a big boost the U.S. has cut its military aid to Armenia.

Sanamyan’s post occasioned some discussion in the Armenian and Azerbaijani press. “The strengthening of Azerbaijan’s control over its land, sea, and air borders meets the strategic interests of the U.S., whose companies have invested many billions of dollars in oil and gas projects in the Caspian, and the U.S. military conducts transit to Afghanistan via Azerbaijan,” said a member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, Rasim Musabeyov, the news website 1news.az reported. Musabeyov said the key takeaway was the strategic interest from Washington toward Azerbaijan: “For Azerbaijan what is important is the very fact of the aid and its source, rather than its amount.”

Musabeyov also claimed that a recent uptick in ceasefire violations between Armenia and Azerbaijan was related to this funding program: “I guess that the reason for this activity is so that the Armenian lobbyists in the U.S. Congress have a reason to disrupt this large-scale ($100 million dollar) American aid to Azerbaijan’s border forces.”

Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer said that the aid is more oriented toward law enforcement and would not necessarily be useful in a military conflict with Iran. But he said that Azerbaijan was benefiting from the growing U.S. attention toward Iran. “American-Iranian relations have worsened quite quickly, so Azerbaijan finds itself in Washington’s focus and Armenia, not. Armenia is seen, probably, as an Iranian ally,” Felgenhauer told the website Moscow-Baku.

Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit. Republished, with permission, from Eurasianet.
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6 Comments

  1. They pumped money to Pentagon should find a way out in some way and there might be not a good reason behind necessarily! The important thing is to keep the money flow to defence contractors running that is already achieved!

  2. It is interesting how nobody seems to have a solid idea why the U.S. would give $100M to Azerbaijan, yet suggest “safe” hypotheses supported with guesses and speculation as evidence.

    First, to claim that somehow Armenia is viewed as an ally of Iran – relative to Azerbaijan – is not supported by facts. Armenia’s 2018 trade with Iran was $364M, yet just last month the Azerbaijani Minister of Economy Shahin Mustafayev, stated, “The value of Iranian investments in the Azerbaijani economy is $3.4 billion.”, growing 2.3X in the first five months of 2019. Azerbaijan’s trade with Iran in 2018 was $450 million in 2018, meaning by the end of 2019, if this rate continues, Azerbaijani-Iranian yearly turnover will well surpass a billion dollars! It doesn’t appear that Iran is threatening Azerbaijan nor visa versa.

    Second, Azerbaijan is a conduit for operations in support of U.S. covert operations worldwide. A Bulgarian reporter documented the transport of arms to ISIS fighters via its Silk Way air cargo company two years ago. Nobody brought Azerbaijan to the carpet, but instead; Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, who exposed Azerbaijan’s activities and associated governments involved, was fired from her job after Bulgarian security people spoke to her.

    Third, two years ago, Azerbaijan’s State Security Service reported that most of the 900 Azerbaijani ISIS fighters in Syria are dead. For the U.S., anybody fighting for ISIS is fighting to overthrow the Syrian government.

    Forth, Azerbaijan’s 2018 GDP was $48B, with 90% of its exports as hydrocarbon products. Azerbaijan is floating on oil and gas, with associated unfettered corruption. As Rasim Musabeyov noted in the article, Azerbaijan does not need the money – it’s the thought that counts!

    It’s irrelevant if any of this $100M will or will be not used to attack Armenians or not, considering Israel has sold nearly $5B of their high technology weaponry to Azerbaijan (whose supplies half of Israel’s crude supplies), and Baku has stated these weapons will be used against Armenia.

    Several hypotheses, just as valid as those suggested by those in the article regarding an explanation for the $100M U.S. gift, supported by the evidence noted, include:

    1) Azerbaijan is being rewarded for its service to western intelligence organizations.
    2) Azerbaijan is being encouraged to force a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia.
    3) Armenia is being punished for (a) having sent 83 non-combat soldiers (doctors and anti-mining technicians) to Aleppo, Syria, (b) for generally being a Russia ally, and (c) not sending its citizens to fight against the Syrian government.

    …or any combination of the above, and probably more!

    Yerevan, Armenia

  3. David Davidian:

    Parev!

    Russia will prevent Armenia’s defeat in any war with Azerbaijan (the lands formerly known as Aran and Nakhjevan and Talesh).

  4. Joshua

    I don’t think Iran feels an iota of threat from Azerbaijan or Azerbaijanis, they are as Iranian as rest of Iran. This year Iranian railroad will be linked to Azerbaijan’ and Russia and Europe as part of BRI Eurasia integration. IMO, for Iran, best place to collect information, activity, movements of the region, and foreign activity is through her Shia Azari neighbors. Do you even know why the place is called Azerbaigan.
    Don’t you think Azaris who are Iranian and share the same history don’t know. US or any other country cannot be a strategic threat to Iran or Russia from Azerbaijan or Armenia or anywhere in Caucasia since these countries survival is dependent on Iran and Russia’ security. This is just like the case in Afghanistan, last 18 years of war in Afghanistan has proved that even US basing her military in Afghanistan has not been able to change the strategic thinking of China, Russia, Iran or even India’. That is the reason US is begging to leave like she did in Vietnam. As per one Iranian proverb “ these will not be a panty for Fatti” meaning not enough martial to cover Fatti’ butt. While in Turkey you should learn more.

  5. Only time I have ever heard a true statement from such fabulist Azerrbaijan.
    As member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, Rasim Musabeyovsaid said: “For Azerbaijan what is important is the very fact of the aid and its source, rather than its amount.”
    Yes Mr. Rsim Musabeyovsaid the fact of the aid and its sources is so obvious to the world.
    $100 million from corporate America to corrupt Azari officials who grow fat off bribes and graft.
    Vs.
    $13 Billion investment of American oil companies of ExxonMobil, Chevron, AMOCO, ARCO, CONOCO, BP, UNOCAL, Pennzoil and so on ……………………………
    Not a bad deal at all.

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