On November 16, Baku canceled a meeting between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan scheduled to take place on November 20 in Washington (Apa.az, November 16). The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry asserted that, under the current circumstances, it is not possible to proceed with US-mediated peace negotiations. The statement alluded to US Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien’s comments during “The Future of Nagorno-Karabakh” hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe on November 15 (YouTube, November 15). The hearing highlighted a growing break between Baku and Washington on how to proceed with the peace talks. Azerbaijan has called for “more regional solutions to regional problems,” while the United States and European Union hope to maintain influence over negotiations between Baku and Yerevan (see EDM, October 25).
O’Brien’s remarks raised eyebrows in Baku. The US official commented on the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process, bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and the United States, and regional transit projects in the South Caucasus. He stipulated that it cannot be business as usual with Azerbaijan without significant progress in the peace talks: “We’ve canceled a number of high-level visits, condemned [Baku’s] actions, and [canceled] the 907 waiver. We don’t anticipate submitting a waiver until such time as we see a real improvement in the situation” (YouTube, November 15). O’Brien was referencing Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992. The amendment, adopted on October 24, 1992, bars the United States from offering assistance to Azerbaijan unless Baku takes “demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh” (Congress.gov, October 24, 1992).
The United States has granted annual waivers for this amendment since 2002. That year, Baku permitted Washington to use its territory to supply US troops in Afghanistan. Hence, O’Brien’s statement stirred ire in Baku. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry responded, “It turns out that the US side has always considered the support of Azerbaijan as occasional, while it should be remembered that history has always repeated itself.” The government ministry also reminded Washington of Azerbaijan’s numerous contributions to US counterterrorist efforts following 9/11 (Mfa.gov.az, November 16).
The Azerbaijani government has long considered the 907 amendment a major setback in Azerbaijani-US relations. Baku has consistently criticized the measure because it was adopted when Azerbaijan, not Armenia, was under occupation. Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the Baku-based Center for Analysis of International Relations, recently posted on X (formerly Twitter), “Let’s recall that the 907 amendment was adopted on 24 October 1992—the year when the Azerbaijani city Shusha was occupied by Armenian forces” (Twitter.com/shafiyev_farid, November 16).
O’Brien’s comments on a possible trans-Iranian transit corridor suggest that the US State Department’s strong response may be connected to other regional developments in the South Caucasus (see EDM, November 3). The US official declared, “A future that is built around the access of Russia and Iran as the main participants in the security of the region, the South Caucasus, is unstable and undesirable, including for both the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia. They have the opportunity to make a different decision now” (YouTube, November 15). He further stressed that Washington prefers a land corridor passing through Armenia’s southern territory. The United States hopes to use such a passage to limit Russian and Iranian involvement in regional transit. Paradoxically, the State Department has not opposed the contract signed between Armenia and Iran on October 23 regarding the construction of a new road between the two countries. The new road is meant to “contribute to the implementation of the North-South project,” a priority for both Moscow and Tehran (Armradio.am, October 23).
Baku responded by emphasizing its focus on regional players taking the lead in peace negotiations. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry stated that “it is the sovereign right of Azerbaijan to agree with neighboring countries on how to build communication lines, which also includes an agreement with Iran. … Against this backdrop, Azerbaijan also reconfirms the priority of the ‘3+2’ format (Türkiye, Russia, and Iran “plus” Azerbaijan and Armenia) for the security of the region” (Mfa.gov.az, November 16). The Azerbaijani government has supported revitalizing the “3+3” cooperation platform (that includes Georgia)—currently proceeding in the “3+2” format due to Tbilisi’s non-participation—to deal with regional conflicts.
The format is built on the “regional solutions to regional problems” approach and attempts to ensure that the power vacuum left by declining Russian influence does not transform the South Caucasus into a battlefield for great-power competition (see EDM, October 25). This presages a new security order in the region that is not dominated by any other extra-regional actor. In this, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia would gain an opportunity to diversify their foreign policy and prevent compromising their sovereignty.
Tensions continue to mount between Azerbaijan and the United States regarding differences in their regional policies. On November 21, Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy advisor to the Azerbaijani president, issued a response to a statement from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power(Twitter.com/HikmetHajiyev, November 21). In a video posted on X, Power announced a package of $4 million in humanitarian aid for the Armenian people who, according to her, were forcibly displaced by Azerbaijan’s military operation in Karabakh (Twitter.com/PowerUSAID, November 21). Hajiyev criticized Power’s statement on multiple fronts. He highlighted her apparent indifference to the challenges faced by internally displaced persons and refugees in Azerbaijan and for supporting the Russian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan, who had served in a senior position in the separatist government in Karabakh. Hajiyev’s statement signaled that Azerbaijan may suspend USAID’s operations in the country.
The current tensions between Washington and Baku could have far-reaching implications for the South Caucasus. In this author’s opinion, it is crucial that both countries seek common ground on how to proceed in peace negotiations with Armenia and how best to handle the Armenians who left Karabakh. Additionally, the question of a transit corridor that connects Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave with the mainland—either through Iran or Armenia’s southern region—remains a key sticking point between the two sides. An inability to solve these issues along mutually beneficial terms will likely hamper any future efforts to establish peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and risks straining regional tensions that could lead to a wider conflict.