Skip to content

US-Azerbaijan Relations: Strengthening Strategic Ties Amidst Geopolitical Challenges

Azerbaijan's rich history, cultural diversity, and geopolitical significance pave the way for enhanced collaboration with the US.
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

US-Azerbaijan relations go back more than a century. In the 1920s, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil acquired a significant part of the oil fields in Baku from the Nobel brothers. This was followed by American companies Exxon and Chevron in the 1990s when Azerbaijan became independent from the Soviet Union. The two sides have not only been engaging in good trade and investment relations but also cooperate in a variety of areas, including the promotion of European energy security, the fight against terrorism, and military cooperation in the context of NATO (i.e., the International Security Assistance Force and Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan). American and Azerbaijani interests generally converge in the face of neighbouring Russia and Iran, with Azerbaijan also having deep defence and intelligence ties with Israel.


Now that the Caspian country is preparing to host the next Conference of Parties (COP) in late 2024, both nations could benefit from a strengthened strategic partnership. This became more obvious during the Munich Security Conference, where the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with top US officials, including the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, to discuss a wide range of areas of possible cooperation, including climate change, energy, trade, and regional stability.


This is a welcome development in contrast to the previous steps taken by the US, which risked hampering these long-lasting relations. Just after the adoption of the Armenian Protection Act in November 2023 by the US Senate, which could suspend all military aid to Azerbaijan if taken up by Congress, Blinken had stated in January 2024 that Azerbaijan had been put on a special religious freedom watchlist.

When asked about the watchlist via a phone interview, Elchin Amirbayov, special envoy to President Ilham Aliyev, said: “We regret and reject this unwarranted and biased. The former ambassador to the Holy See referred to Pope Francis’ visit to Baku in 2016, where the pontiff praised Azerbaijan as a model of religious tolerance. “We are proud of our religious diversity, which does not depend on any political conjuncture. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, we are all one family. It’s part of our DNA,” Amirbayov added.


Such decisions were perceived as odd by many, not least as international law recognizes Karabakh, formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, as Azerbaijani territory and – despite UN resolutions demanding Armenia’s withdrawal – Azerbaijan has only just restored its full sovereignty over the region following 30 years of Armenian occupation, a conflict that killed 30,000 and displaced nearly one million people, mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis. Some attributed these measures as an attempt by the US administration to please its strong Armenian diaspora just before its presidential elections. However, seeking a rapprochement with Armenia, which is part of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization, hosting a Russian military base and relying on Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to control its border, seems to be a rather unrealistic foreign policy goal for the U.S. in the long term. Nor could it afford to be seen as complicit in legitimizing Armenia’s unlawful territorial claims of “reunification of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh”, which are enshrined in the country’s current constitution, for the sake of its own credibility as the upholder of international order.


Such moves would risk destabilizing an already fragile region while alienating a reliable and secular ally, Azerbaijan, which has supported the West in the midst of its energy crisis following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while adhering to Western values, such as pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance and equality between women and men, in sharp contrast with neighbouring Iran that is governed by Sharia law.


The heightened tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran since the attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran in January 2023 raised alarm bells about potential dangers caused by Iran’s support of terrorism, whose malign aims could go as far as overthrowing the Azerbaijani government to establish a theocratic state. Like most Western governments fighting extremism, radicalization and foreign influence, some degree of vigilance might indeed be justified in the Caspian state under such circumstances. Although Belgium tightened state control over its Grand Mosque, which had been run by Saudi Arabia, and suspended the recognition of numerous “Diyanet” mosques, for instance, it was not mentioned in the U.S. watchlist. Nor was France after tightening state control over mosques and other religious organisations with its infamous anti-separatism law. Why is the secular regime of Azerbaijan being punished for taking similar measures while achieving better results in tackling radicalization than other countries in Europe?


Following the developments last year, Azerbaijan has invited Karabakh Armenians back to the region (on the condition that they apply for Azerbaijani citizenship). Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov stated that ethnic Armenians may keep their culture “if they integrate into Azerbaijani society and governmental structures like other ethnic and religious minorities.” Baku’s persistent calls to stay and reintegrate were largely ignored, however. Strikingly, Armenia never extended such invitations to ethnic Azerbaijanis when they were displaced from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in earlier conflicts.


Azerbaijan’s Culture Ministry has added all Christian monuments in the Karabakh region to the list of monuments of national importance and supports the state-run campaign to restore the religious heritage of Karabakh. This can be exemplified by the recent restoration efforts in Shusha (i.e., Gazanchi Church and St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church). A United Nations mission to Karabakh completed in October 2023 reported that “it did not see any damage to civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and housing or to cultural and religious sites”.


Western observers such as Emmanuel Dupuy and George Mitchell have condemned the desecration and destruction of Azerbaijani cultural and religious sites by Armenian forces over the years and described Aghdam as the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus”. Despite this, Azerbaijan’s repeated calls for an international fact-finding mission were ignored and Armenia was never blacklisted for the past 30 years. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) itself recognised the destruction of 67 mosques in Karabakh under Armenian occupation in its 2022 report. Then why recourse to such double standards when Azerbaijan is showing commitment to safeguard all cultural and religious sites after the end of the Armenian occupation?


Azerbaijan is one of 11 Muslim majority countries in which secularism is determined constitutionally. Tolerance and multiculturalism are promoted as a state policy, embracing a rich diversity of Muslim Shia and Sunni, atheists, Armenian Apostolic, Baha’is, Catholics, Georgian Orthodox, Hare Krishna, Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, Molokans, Protestants and Russian Orthodox, which are equally represented and involved in the social life of the country without any distinction on national, religious, or racial grounds. All religious communities are annually allocated material aid by the state, while freely performing their religious services and rites.


While sectarian divides plague the Middle East, Shia and Sunni populations in Azerbaijan pray in the same mosques in a unique fashion, a fact nearly unheard of in the Muslim world. Whereas antisemitism is on the rise in much of the world, including the West, Azerbaijan is a peaceful home to some 20,000 Jews, including the last remaining Jewish community in the Caucasus, known as Mountain Jews in “Red Town”, near the city of Quba. Importantly, Baku recently struck a deal with Israel to set up refugee camps in Azerbaijan for Russian Jews, following a wave of Jewish emigration triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

Azerbaijan has restored dozens of churches, including the Armenian, Lutheran, and Russian Orthodox churches in Baku, and numerous synagogues throughout the country, while also providing support for the restoration of churches, cultural monuments and catacombs in France, the Vatican, Russia, Hungary and elsewhere. The Azerbaijani state oil company (SOCAR) is providing free gas to all churches in Georgia, including the Armenian Orthodox Church, while also supporting the Muslim and Jewish community in the neighbouring state. Baku has hosted many international events, such as UN Alliance of Civilizations Global Forum, World Summit of Religious Leaders, World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, Baku International Humanitarian Forum, with a view of promoting interreligious and intercultural dialogue in the world.  


The end of the protracted Karabakh conflict is a harbinger of lasting stability and peace, representing a historic opportunity for this region and beyond. Hence, the West would do well to seize this positive momentum and choose its priorities in the face of its geostrategic rivals by getting involved in the peace process in an active and constructive way. Instead of blacklisting Azerbaijan, the West should harness its rich experience and religious pluralism; and might be even able to learn some lessons from the country for projecting a more harmonious existence at home, in the Middle East and other places across the globe

“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”

Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.

Check out our free email newsletters

Recommended from our partners