By Eric Bazail-Eimil and Gabriel Gavin

WASHINGTON (Politico) — The Biden administration appears to be slow-walking the renewal of a long-standing military assistance program to Azerbaijan amid growing warnings of ethnic cleansing in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Every year since 2002, the White House has issued a waiver to provide aid to Azerbaijan despite its campaign against Nagorno-Karabakh. That waiver has previously been completed before the summer, but this year it is still pending halfway through August.

Officials have offered no explanation for the delay. However, it coincides with increasing concern within the international community that Azerbaijan is responsible for a worsening humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has hardened its stance against the ethnic Armenian population there in recent months, blocking the entry of commercial and humanitarian vehicles and shutting off the region’s access to gas and electricity. The U.N. Security Council will consider an appeal from Armenia to respond to the worsening situation Wednesday.

The delay in issuing the authorization — called the Section 907 waiver — also comes as the Biden administration pursues a long-elusive peace agreement between the two countries, one that experts say could be close. Ending assistance to Azerbaijan could rule out Baku’s participation in future negotiations.

These competing political pressures are creating a delicate landscape in the South Caucasus for the Biden administration, which is caught in a struggle between its values and the pragmatic realities of geopolitics.

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“Going ahead with the 907 waiver at this particular moment would create a political firestorm for Biden,” said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and Bush administration official. “But killing the 907 waiver at this delicate diplomatic juncture would seriously risk derailing a peace treaty that is closer than it has ever been.”

Spokespeople for the State Department and the National Security Council confirmed that the military assistance waiver remains under review but denied that the current state of peace talks or recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh were affecting the timeline for renewing it.

“U.S. policy on Azerbaijan has not changed,” a State Department spokesperson said, adding “The United States values its strategic partnership with Azerbaijan.” The spokesperson was granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been controlled by its ethnic Armenian population since a war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. In 2020, Azerbaijan launched an offensive to retake swathes of territory. A Moscow-brokered ceasefire paused the fighting, yet Russian peacekeepers deployed to the region have failed to maintain the status quo.

In December, Azerbaijan took control of the Lachin Corridor — the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the outside world — and prevented humanitarian supplies including food and fuel from getting through.

The Armenian government has called it an effort to carry out “ethnic cleansing” in the region, while the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, last week issued a report arguing that ethnic cleansing is already underway in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In an interview, Moreno Ocampo argued that if the international community fails to act, it will be “complicit in genocide.”

The U.S. and EU-brokered peace talks, meanwhile, have stalled in recent months as Azerbaijan has refused to hold mediated dialogues with leaders from Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian community.

Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 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.”

The White House first issued the assistance waiver in 2002 when Azerbaijan allowed the Bush administration to use the country’s territory as a land bridge to get troops into Afghanistan. That opened the door for wide-ranging military and security partnerships between the two countries.

Azerbaijan, a major producer of natural gas that shares a maritime and land border with Iran, has also proved to be a useful partner for the U.S. in the Middle East as a counterweight to Tehran.

Azerbaijan receives significant military and financial support from Washington. Amid growing tensions with neighboring Iran in 2018, the Trump administration stepped up funding for the country’s border guards, providing $100 million worth of equipment and other assistance, making the South Caucasus nation one of the main beneficiaries of American tax dollars in the region. During the 2020 war, more than a dozen Democrats including then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez of New Jersey, wrote to the State Department urging that support be suspended.

Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, said that efforts to restrict military support for Azerbaijan were being orchestrated by “representatives of Congress who actually represent the Armenian lobby and aren’t thinking about their own national interest.” Such actions, he added, could be “detrimental” to the efforts of the U.S. and its allies in trying to secure a lasting peace.

The Armenian embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Armenian diaspora groups want the U.S. to halt military assistance to Azerbaijan. They argue U.S. attempts to influence Azerbaijan via Section 907 have fallen short.

Gev Iskajyan, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of Artsakh, which lobbies for Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, explained that the U.S. has previously used the waiver in order to get concessions from Azerbaijan, only to relent and grant the waiver before Baku makes any changes.

“They dangle the waiver in front of [Azerbaijan], but at the last minute it’s always given,” Iskajyan said. “That strategy hasn’t been working.”

“There is a growing awareness on Capitol Hill that U.S. military support for Azerbaijan is enabling Aliyev to commit war crimes and human rights abuses against Armenians,” said Tim Jemal, president of the Global ARM advocacy group, which has been meeting with D.C. politicians as part of a push for sanctions. “There must be consequences for Azerbaijan’s bad behavior.”

A number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to see the waiver eliminated. “There is no justifiable reason to continue this waiver,” Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), the Republican co-chair of the Congressional Armenian Caucus said in a statement, noting that Azerbaijan has used military equipment obtained from the U.S. against the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We have to be tougher with Aliyev if we want a peace deal,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). “What we’ve done so far hasn’t done anything to help a peace agreement, so getting tougher is more likely to achieve a good end.”

(Eric Bazail-Eimil reported from Washington. Gabriel Gavin reported from Yerevan, Armenia.)


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