- - Thursday, April 5, 2018

As it mulls the future of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 nations, the U.S. finds itself at odds with Europe on policies toward the Islamic Republic. The existence of conflicting camps amongst the parties to the nuclear agreement means that, whether the accord is “fixed or nixed,” America needs to bolster its alliances outside the P5+1— and the solution can come through the often-overlooked Eurasian nation of Azerbaijan.

Long-held concerns over the nuclear deal came to the fore a mere month ago when an Iranian drone violated Israeli airspace near the Syrian border. Israel intercepted the drone, while Syria shot down an Israeli F-16. The clashes are a direct consequence of the nuclear deal’s enabling of Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, to grow its military presence in war-torn Syria.

The White House responded to the episode by expressing its support for Israel, “to defend itself from the Iranian-backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria.” It was the latest example of the Trump administration’s stern rhetoric on Iran. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, President Trump stated that the U.S. is calling on fellow world powers to “confront Iran’s support for terrorists and block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.”

Earlier in January, Mr. Trump announced his plan to “fix” the nuclear deal, including a 120-day deadline for America and the deal’s European partners to impose stricter terms on the Iranians. If Mr. Trump cannot bring Europe to his side on the nuclear issue, the U.S. may pull out of the agreement brokered by the Obama administration.

But the president needs more than tough talk on Iran — he needs an action plan. America must be prepared for prolonged diplomatic tension with Europe over the Iran deal, meaning the U.S. should bolster its strategic alliances elsewhere.

The ally that America needs is Azerbaijan, which shares a southern border with Iran. A stronger U.S.-Azerbaijan alliance can help address the challenges ran poses outside its nuclear quest. These range from supporting terrorism, exporting sectarian violence and promoting radicalism. With some 30 million ethnic Azeris, Iran’s largest non-Persian group, the Shia-majority-Azerbaijan is better positioned than any other potential ally to support the U.S.

Consider also Azerbaijan’s northern neighbor, Russia. The Russians are enthusiastic backers of the Iran deal and work closely with Tehran to support President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war. This alliance extends to Russia’s vassal, Armenia, a country filled with Russian military bases and that coordinates its foreign policy with the Kremlin.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has said his country sees “great potential in becoming a transit route towards Iran and the Persian Gulf” for Russia. This, at the heart of an Iranian-Russian-Armenian nexus that will continue to bolster Tehran. Even if Congress reinstates sanctions removed by the nuclear deal, Iran will not lose economic leverage with partners like Russia and Armenia.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, is in a decades-long conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-occupied region that U.N. resolutions affirm as Azerbaijani territory. Peculiarly, this conflict is exacerbated by a Congress that all too often caters to the interests of Armenian Americans, rather than serving the national interests of the U.S.

Most recently, in an ironic twist to the Russia influence scandals, Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, introduced H.Res.697, which supports Russia and Iran-backed separatists through “visits and communication between the United States and the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) at all levels of civil society and government.” This extraordinarily disregards the State Department’s vow that America supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

Mr. Pallone’s measure treats the lawless territory of Nagorno-Karabakh as a legitimate “republic.” Further, the resolution ignores the State Department’s advisory recommending that U.S. citizens avoid traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh due to the ongoing armed conflict there.

Rather than alienating Azerbaijan and jeopardizing American interests through pro-Armenian legislation, the U.S. needs to give Baku the treatment it deserves: As a key ally amid the Iran nuclear deal saga.

Azerbaijan is on the verge of significantly enhancing its standing on the global stage thanks to its leading role in the Southern Gas Corridor, which will span nearly 2,200 miles across seven countries and three pipelines — bypassing Iran, Armenia and Russia.

Baku is a promising economic and diplomatic partner in Iran’s neighborhood. Armenia shares a physical border with Iran, but is close to Tehran in spirit for the wrong reason — as a member of the disturbing triumvirate with Russia and Iran that threatens American interests. While Armenia’s alliances perpetuate the nuclear deal conundrum, Azerbaijan can help the U.S. solve it.

President Trump needs more than a bold attitude to outfox Russia and Western Europe in the process of tackling the Iranian nuclear issue. He should follow Israel’s example and work with allies that serve key strategic objectives, and he should start by cultivating warmer ties with Azerbaijan.

Jacob Kamaras is a contributor at the Haym Salomon Center.

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