Trump, Iran, Karabakh and Armenian lobby

Trump, Iran, Karabakh and Armenian lobby

Many high-ranking politicians and experts, who are close to the Kremlin, were confident that the victory of Republican Donald Trump would alter the nature of the US-Russian relations. According to Moscow, the new US President's foreign policy would be focused exclusively on resolving internal political problems as well as on paying much attention to the Chinese direction. Thus, following that logic, America would have to weaken its positions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Moreover, Russian experts actively promoted the thesis on the inevitability of the conflict between Washington and Brussels, which would lead to a split in NATO. Leading governmental media praised Trump, presenting him as a future partner in international affairs.

However, the latest developments in Syria, coupled with the consistent position of the new administration on the Ukrainian issue, have led to another round of tension between the countries. The crisis of the US-Russian political dialogue cannot but worry the Armenian public, as Washington and Moscow, along with official Paris, are the permanent Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the settlement of the Karabakh-Azerbaijani conflict. At the state level, Russia and the United States declare their commitment to the peaceful settlement of the conflict by political and diplomatic means. Indeed, the contacts of the Kremlin and the White House on this issue have remained stable, despite sharp deterioration in bilateral relations after the Ukrainian Maidan.

However, speaking about preserving general diplomatic tone, it is important not to overlook many objective and subjective factors. Thus, the administration of Democrat Barack Obama did not perceive Azerbaijan as a serious partner. What were the reasons for that? Firstly, an agreement was signed with Iran, which led to a sharp drop in geopolitical and geoenergetic importance of Azerbaijan in the Greater Middle East. Let's not forget that it was the Iranian problem, together with energetic attractiveness, that turned Azerbaijan into an important partner for America during the presidency of George W. Bush. Secondly, the White House did not hide its discontent with the fact that the political leadership in Baku systematically violated (and still does) human rights and pursued its political opponents. It is also noteworthy that Obama's attitude to the Turkish regime of Erdogan - the main ally and lobbyist of Azerbaijani interests - was similar. These objective contradictions resulted in the fact that Washington's political favor was on the Armenian side.

Yet, Obama's administration stayed in the past. Does this mean that there will be dramatic changes in the US policy in the Karabakh direction? Traditionally, Republicans are distinguished by a more rigid and consistent foreign policy philosophy, which is based on protection and preservation of America's global leadership. Bad news for Armenia and the NKR is the fact that Iran is really of great interest to the current administration. This means that the White House will strive to strengthen its relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey.  Ankara and Israeli authorities by the means of their influential lobbyists in Washington will try to convince Trump to involve Baku in resolving the Iranian issue. Last time such lobbying activity led to "freezing" Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act by Republican Bush Jr. That Section actually prohibited any possible assistance from America to Azerbaijan. Thus, there is no doubt that different political forces and lobby groups will make attempts to actualize the Azerbaijani factor.

Many key members of Trump's administration are in favor of urgent solving the Iranian problem. Thus, the Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Director of CIA Mike Pompeo are convinced that the USA should use every opportunity to put maximum pressure on Tehran. Washington already has some experience of using Azerbaijan as an intelligence bridgehead. Probably, in case an appropriate political decision is made, Americans will plan to strengthen their presence in that country. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson - the former head of Exxon Mobil Corporation - has extensive connections with representatives of Azerbaijani political elites. However, his position is very vulnerable due to an extremely high grade of responsibility for a particular foreign policy decision. In addition, after the scandalous resignation of Michael Flynn, it is unlikely that Tillerson will risk his position in the White House and use his lobbyist connections for political purposes.

The National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster and Reince Priebus - the White House Сhief of Staff - will be balancing the position of Mattis and Pompeo. McMaster is characterized as a cold- blooded professional that knows the price of political miscalculations. He has enough authority and influence to oppose the decisions of such experienced hawks as Mattis and Pompeo. Priebus, being an ethnic Greek and an active member of various pro-Greek lobby groups, is unlikely to passively watch the actions of pro-Turkish and pro-Azerbaijani groups of influence.

In the second echelon, there are also some politicians, experts and diplomats that know the peculiarities of the Karabakh-Azerbaijani conflict. Thus, Fiona Hill, an expert from the Brookings Institution, was appointed presidential Advisor on Russia and Europe. Hill published a lot of materials that covered political processes in the Transcaucasus. Despite the fact that she has a reputation of a critic of Russian politics, Fiona Hill is aware of existing realities in the region that can lead to a large-scale conflict with unpredictable consequences. In this regard, she repeatedly urged the White House to be cautious in its relations with Baku, which is actively expanding its military-technical capabilities.

Within the framework of the State Department, the Eurasian Affairs will be supervised by John Heffern, the former US ambassador to Armenia. Heffern was appointed to the post of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary on European and Eurasian Affairs after Victoria Nuland. If he retains his position and is finally confirmed as an Advisor, Tillerson will get one of the most informed diplomats that is aware of details about the Karabakh-Azerbaijani conflict.

It is also important to understand which think tanks will play a key role in making political decisions. As a rule, Republican administrations use the services of such centers as the «Heritage Foundation», «Manhattan Institute for Policy Research», «Lexington Institute», «Hudson Institute» and «American Enterprise Institute». Under Trump both the «Atlantic Council» and "Brookings" will get ample opportunities. The president of the «Atlantic Council» was appointed the US ambassador to Russia while the "Brookings" has its own lobbyist in the White House - Fiona Hill. The abovementioned centers and institutions have different positions on the Karabakh -Azerbaijani conflict. Some experts are sympathetic to Armenia, others to Azerbaijan. However, most of them are neutral. Proceeding from this, the Armenian side should lobby its agenda and intensify its contacts with leading conservative centers.

Another important political instance is Congress. Democrats that failed to take the White House and Congress in November 2016 united in the struggle against the Republicans and the administration of President Trump. In an effort to take revenge on the forthcoming elections for Congress in 2018, "donkeys" will fight for preserving their foreign policy heritage. One of the main achievements of Democrats was the agreement with Iran. Undoubtedly, leaders of the Democratic Party will mobilize all resources to prevent cancellation of the signed agreement and new package of sanctions against Tehran. Meantime, that confrontation on the Iranian issue in Congress serves the interests of Armenia and the NKR, since the uncertainty of American policy in the Iranian direction detracts from the prospect of rapprochement between Washington and Baku.

Consequently, the Armenian lobby, which is mainly focused on the Democratic Party, should be interested in blocking any initiatives against Iran. In addition, the Armenian Diaspora should: a) initiate a large-scale process of political discussions to recognize the independence of the NKR at the level of individual states; b) launch a broad campaign to restore Section 907 to the Freedom Support Act; c) obtain increased external appropriations for Armenia and the NKR from the US Congress; d) form a lobbying coalition with other ethnolobbying influence groups (Greeks, Irish, Italians, Poles) to fight pro-Turkish and pro-Azerbaijani forces. To date, the Armenian Caucus includes many influential legislators: Paul Ryan - the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Charles Schumer - the leader of the Democratic Party in Senate, Edward Royce - the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the lower chamber, Adam Schiff - the head of the Democratic faction on the Committee on Intelligence, and others.

In general, these serious internal contradictions in the administration of the White House and Congress allow us to hope that America will maintain a balanced policy in the South Caucasus in the nearest future. This will be done to prevent excessive strengthening of any of the regional players. As it was mentioned above, much will depend on what a fundamental political decision will be made on Iran.

Areg Galstyan - PhD, regular contributor to The National Interest, Forbes, The Hill and The American Thinker. These views are his own.


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