November 16, 2023 - 12:32 AMT
U.S. says Yerevan-Baku peace deal depends on Azerbaijan

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien on Wednesday, November 15 repeatedly indicated Washington is pushing for Yerevan and Baku to sign a normalization agreement within “weeks to a few months,” even while appearing to question the latter’s commitment to the peace process, CivilNet reports.

Speaking at a hearing on Nagorno-Karabakh in the House of Representatives, O’Brien said Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan “seems willing to take chances for peace.”

“The question really is whether (Azerbaijani) President (Ilham) Aliyev is willing to do that. And he has said he is. So now is the moment,” he added.

Until Azerbaijan shows it is negotiating in good faith, “there’s no chance of business as usual” between Washington and Baku, he added.

To that end, O’Brien confirmed the State Department does not intend to submit a request to the White House to waive restrictions on U.S. government assistance to Azerbaijan under Section 907, a measure heavily restricting aid to the country. What that may mean in practice is the drawdown of many of Washington’s aid efforts in the country.

Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act restricts most U.S. aid to Azerbaijan until Washington determines that Baku “is taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.” However, subsequent legislation has allowed for Section 907 to be waived annually, and U.S. presidents have done so every year from 2002 to 2022.

O’Brien also appeared to suggest at multiple points during the hearing that the United States expects Azerbaijan to guarantee Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians right to return to their homes following their forcible displacement from the region in September as part of a peace deal.

In addition, he gave some of the strongest indications yet by any U.S. official that Washington is open to sanctioning Baku for further failures to heed its repeated calls for the non-use of force in the region.

“We’re looking at all the tools we have. I’m not going to preview any sanctions decisions, but that’s certainly a tool in our toolkit,” O’Brien said in response to a question on the matter.

“Let me just follow up on that,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., interrupted. “You’re not previewing them, but are you committing to a willingness to use them if other methods don’t work?”

O’Brien, formerly the State Department’s sanctions coordinator, had a one-word answer: “Yes.”

Continuing, O’Brien expressed U.S. support for a “transit corridor” connecting Azerbaijan and Turkey through Armenia, but only “with the involvement and consent of Armenia.”

“A transit corridor created some other way, by force, or with the involvement of Iran will be met with a very strong reaction” from the United States, he warned, without elaborating.

That was likely in reference to the Zangezur corridor, a proposed transit route that would run from mainland Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave and on to Turkey via Armenia’s strategically important Syunik region. Baku has indicated it wants the route to be out of Armenia’s control and has repeatedly threatened to use force if Yerevan does not comply.

Turning to Washington’s bilateral relations with Yerevan, O’Brien said he had been “very impressed by the (Armenian) government’s commitment to reform” and pledged the United States and European Union would continue supporting Armenia.

Washington and Brussels are working together on an offer to “bring Armenia closer,” O’Brien revealed, saying that could include preferential trade agreements or better access to the EU’s single market. No other details were made immediately available.

Notably missing from the discussion was any mention of the fate of the dozens of Armenians held in Azerbaijan, including eight former senior Nagorno-Karabakh officials who were detained during the mass exodus from the region to Armenia in September.

Just last week, Azerbaijan for the first time convicted one of the Armenians in its custody, sentencing 68-year-old Vagif Khachatryan to 15 years in prison on charges of genocide and forcible population transfer. Khachatryan and his family have strenuously denied the charges, and the Armenian government has decried the trial as a “sham.”

Wednesday’s question-and-answer session with O’Brien marked the first congressional hearing on Nagorno-Karabakh since Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive against the region in September, which led to the collapse of the local government and the forcible displacement of nearly all of the roughly 100,000 Armenians still living there.

At a Senate hearing earlier that month, then-Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim said the United States “will not tolerate any military action, any attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Azerbaijan attacked five days later.