- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

The recent arrest of 18 people planning to smuggle Soviet-made grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles and other Russian military weapons into the United States is a disturbing national-security problem connecting unresolved conflicts in the former Soviet Union to our homeland security.

According to various news reports, the participants in this dangerous scheme included both Georgians and Armenians, citizens of two former Soviet republics with continuous ethnic and territorial conflicts. Georgia is embroiled in a conflict to protect its territorial integrity from Russian-backed separatists in Abkhazia and Ossetia. Armenia, on the other hand, is engaged in a 15-year conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh.

While continued ethnic conflict in the territory of Georgia should be of concern to Washington, the more important and worrisome connection is the involvement of Armenians and that country’s continued occupation of Azerbaijan. Left unchecked, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan presents an immediate danger to America’s energy and homeland security.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin decided to play the ethnic card to consolidate power by pitting one group against the other and imposing artificial boundaries within the Soviet empire. The lingering war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh is a tragic result of this ethnic gerrymandering. In 1988, the ArmeniansofNagorno-Karabagh declared their “independence” and unification with Armenia. With substantial support from Russia, Armenia started a full-fledged military campaign in 1991. The ensuing war led to the occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory by Armenia and forced about a million Azerbaijanis into the status of refugee or internally displaced person.

Despite a Russian-brokered cease-fire in 1994, Moscow has transferred $1 billion in illegal arms to its historic ally, Armenia, between 1994 and 1997. And although the government of Armenia is cooperating with U.S. law-enforcement agencies, it now appears that some Armenians are turning their country into a “warehouse of evil” and are trying to sell these Soviet missiles and other armaments to Al Qaeda terrorists for use against the United States. The FBI has expressed serious concern over shoulder-fired missiles that pose a major security threat to American airlines.

Ironically, Congress has singled out Armenia for special favor and Azerbaijan for special disfavor. Between 1992 and 2003, Armenia received $1.336 billion in assistance from the U.S. government. Azerbaijan, however, received only $335 million during this same period. Despite its unjust treatment by the U.S. Congress, Azerbaijan has remained a steadfast ally of the United States. When tragedy struck America on Sept. 11, 2001, Azerbaijan offered immediate and unconditional support.Today, its troops are working side-by-side with U.S. forces in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Furthermore, Azerbaijan has stood beside the United States on a major foreign-policy priority of Washington — the uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of Caspian Sea oil to international markets. The anchor of this policy has been the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline running from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. On May 25, this historic pipeline will become operational. Crude oil from the Caspian Sea — home to 10 percent of the world’s remaining crude-oil reserves — will be on its way to the East Coast of the United States.

Clearly, the resolution of this conflict must be of utmost importance to President Bush, because it does indeed affect our national security. According to the State Department’s 2005 fact sheet, the United States does not recognize Nagorno-Karabagh as an independent country. Washington supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

With this in mind, the Bush administration should take a more robust approach to a swift resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict in a fair and balanced manner. The presidents of both Azerbaijan and Armenia have expressed strong support for a peaceful resolution of their conflict and Washington should seize on this goodwill.

A summit at the White House hosted by President Bush could serve as a catalyst to end this festering regional conflict with its direct threat to American security. There is international consensus on the broad outlines of a solution. Armenians must withdraw from all occupied territories. Azerbaijan should regain full sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabagh.

The rights of Armenians to live in peace within the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh must be secured and guaranteed, as must the right of Azerbaijanis to return to their ancient homeland if they so desire. The introduction of NATO peacekeepers into the conflict zone would be a first step towards a permanent solution, thus keeping the region from manipulation by criminal elements whose goal is to harm America.

When Afghanistan became a “warehouse of evil” for criminals like Osama bin Laden, Americans paid a heavy price on September 11. We cannot afford another region of the world to fall prey to criminal elements. The United States must act now before it is too late.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.

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