The signing into law last year of permanent normal trade relations with Russia is one of the successful diplomatic accomplishments of President Barack Obama’s first term.
A normal trade relationship between the United States and Russia will bring business opportunities for American companies and transparency to Russian partners. It is a win-win for both nations.
However, one former Soviet bloc country is singled out by a doctrine of U.S. foreign policy that is almost 21 years out of date and does not reflect the deep bilateral partnership between the United States and Azerbaijan.
During the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1992, Congress, reacting to domestic political constituencies, passed Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act limiting direct U.S. aid to Azerbaijan. Responding to 9/11 and Azerbaijan’s willing partnership in intelligence sharing, the granting of rights to overflights and providing logistical and strategic support, Congress in 2001 gave the president the ability to waive Section 907. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have wisely used this to build an even stronger alliance between our two countries by invoking it on an annual basis.
While some may argue that the waiver authority negates the need to repeal Section 907, the recent passage of PNTR for Russia raises the point of incompatibility. How is it that we have normal trade relations with Russia, while Azerbaijan is subject to restrictions that have to be reviewed annually?
Since 1992 Azerbaijan has proved itself a partner to the U.S. and a stalwart in the region. In a tough neighborhood where the Iranian regime openly violates U.N. sanctions, Azerbaijan has assisted the United States in the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan and remains a key strategic and logistical hub supporting U.S. missions in the region. As a moderate Islamic nation, Azerbaijan has been a leading force in stability and economic security in the Caucasus region while facing an economic blockade by its western neighbor.
During my service as a member of Congress on the House Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Azerbaijan Caucus, I consistently advocated for the repeal of Section 907 to allow greater flexibility to engage in a deeper level of diplomatic relations with the Azeri people. From advancing energy projects to promoting democracy in the Muslim world, from advocating equal rights of women to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, there are many cultural, economic, political and strategic ways that the United States and Azerbaijan can build a deeper partnership. Repealing Section 907 will allow those synergies to thrive.
Basing U.S. foreign policy on events in 1992 is as crazy as waiting for “Cheers,” “Murphy Brown” or “Murder She Wrote” — all big television shows in 1992 — to return to prime time. It is time to change our U.S. policy and give the president the flexibility he needs to promote a stronger U.S. bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan. It’s time to repeal Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act and send a message of respect and friendship to the people of Azerbaijan.
Former Rep. Michael E. McMahon, D-N.Y., is currently a partner in the government relations practice of the New York law firm Herrick Feinstein LLP.