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Here’s what happened in Baku between Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan

The summit meeting in Baku suggests a mending of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran and Russia and a further consolidation of integration processes in Central Asia and in southern Eurasia.

Alexander Mercouris

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As Vladimir Putin meets Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg and prepares for a meeting with Sargsyan of Armenia tomorrow, he has just completed another key meeting, this time in Baku in Azerbaijan with the Presidents of Iran and Azerbaijan, Rouhani and Aliyev.

Before discussing this meeting it is important to remember that Rouhani though Iran’s President is not Iran’s leader.  Iran’s Supreme Leader is Ayatollah Khamenei who scarcely ever leaves Iran but who Putin met during his own most recent visit to Iran in November last year.  Rouhani’s status is not therefore exactly analogous to Putin’s or Aliyev’s.  Rouhani does however have Khamenei’s confidence and there is no reason to think that at the meeting in Baku he was not speaking with the full authority and backing of the whole Iranian leadership.

Turning to the meeting itself, the most important single fact about it was the venue: Baku in Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic with which Moscow has not always had an easy relationship. 

Since before the dissolution of the USSR Azerbaijan has been locked in conflict with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which is populated overwhelmingly by Armenians but which the Soviets had placed within Azerbaijan’s administrative jurisdiction.  In the late 1980s, before the USSR fell, Nagorno Karabakh seceded from Azerbaijan and became self-governing, though with very strong economic and political links to Armenia.  Azerbaijan however continues to claim Nagorno Karabakh as part of its national territory, leading to a bitter dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Azerbaijan always reserving the right to settle the dispute by conquering Nagorno Karabakh by force.

Officially Moscow is neutral in the dispute and has indeed sought to act as a mediator.  In practice before the USSR broke up the Soviet authorities in Moscow backed Azerbaijan but since the USSR broke up the Russians have forged close and very friendly ties with Armenia, which they support economically and where they have established an important airforce base.  Armenia for its part looks to Russia for protection and is actively involved in the Russian-led process of Eurasian integration having joined the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation making it the only Caucasian state to do so. 

This repeats the historic pattern of friendship between Armenians and Russia, with Christian Armenians traditionally looking to Christian Russia as their protector from the Muslim people of the Caucasus and above all from Turkey. 

In the Nagorno Karabakh there is an extra dimension to the relationship between Russia and Armenia in that Turkey, which is closely allied to Azerbaijan, has together with Azerbaijan placed Armenia under economic blockade, making Armenia economically more dependent on Moscow. Azerbaijan has also used the profits of its very considerable Caspian Sea oil and gas wealth to finance a very substantial military build-up, which the Armenians have sought to counter by strengthening their military ties to Moscow.

The tense nature of the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Moscow’s role in the conflict, was underlined by bitter clashes between Azerbaijan’s military and Nagorno Karabakh’s defence forces which took place as recently as April this year.  Though Armenia was not directly involved in the fighting an Azerbaijanian offensive resulted in heavy loss of life, though with insignificant territorial changes to show, provoking fears of an all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Though in the event that did not happen, the Russians are known to have taken urgent diplomatic action to try to prevent it. 

No-one should be under any doubt that in the event of an all-out war between Azerbaijan and Armenia the Russians will act decisively to protect Armenia.  Though the Russians absolutely do not want to be put into this position, Armenia’s importance to Russia for geopolitical reasons – to secure Russia’s position in the Transcaucasus and for the success of the whole Eurasian integration project – means that Russia simply cannot afford to sacrifice Armenia, which is a full member of both the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and of the Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.  The Russians almost certainly made this fact clear to Azerbaijan’s leadership during the April fighting, just as they will have quietly reminded Azerbaijan’s leadership of  Russia’s overwhelming military dominance in the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region, which means that in any conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in which Russia sided with Armenia Azerbaijan would lose.

It is not however Russia’s wish or in Russia’s interests for it to burn its bridges with Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan because of its oil and gas wealth is the richest of the three Caucasian states (the two others are Armenia and Georgia) and is a key state both in the Caucasus and on the Caspian Sea.  Russia needs no enemies in in this region, which is crucial to Russia.  Moreover Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth makes Azerbaijan a constant object of Western plans to break the supposed stranglehold the Russians are supposed to have over the EU’s gas supplies.  Though there is no evidence the Russians have ever sought to prevent the realisation of any of these projects (which like the Nabucco gas pipeline have always proved ephemeral) they obviously have no wish to give Azerbaijan an added incentive to involve itself in them.

Beyond these factors there is the further factor that the Russians undoubtedly see Azerbaijan as a major prize to be won for the process of Eurasian integration.  If Azerbaijan can eventually be drawn into this process it will not only secure a valuable country with its great oil and gas wealth to the Eurasian project, but it will also finally and conclusively secure Russia’s position in the Caucasus, isolating Georgia as the only pro-Western holdout in the area.   For some Russians there would also be something fitting in another country that was formerly a part of the USSR reintegrating itself via Eurasia with Russia.

For all these reasons the Russians have striven to maintain a relationship with Azerbaijan, difficult though that has sometimes been.  To the great anger of many people in Armenia they continue to sell weapons to Azerbaijan, and have maintained economic and political links with the country.  They have also, as discussed previously, declined to side openly with Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh issue but have sought instead to act as mediators in it.

As for Azerbaijan, it too has its reasons to maintain its links with Moscow even if it has from time to time flirted with some of the transparently anti-Russian US and EU oil and gas pipeline projects such as Nabucco, and even if it has also participated in some of the US sponsored anti-Russian groupings within former Soviet territory such as the now essentially defunct GUAM project, in which however Azerbaijan was always the weakest link. 

The leadership of Azerbaijan is acutely aware of Russia’s overwhelming strategic dominance in its region, and has no wish to make Russia into an open enemy, which might cause Russia to side openly with Armenia, losing Nagorno Karabakh for Azerbaijan conclusively and forever. Azerbaijan’s failure to achieve a decisive breakthrough in the April fighting and Russia’s warnings to Azerbaijan during the fighting will have simply underlined the point.

Beyond that the leadership of Azerbaijan has good reason to doubt the West’s reliability as an ally.  Not only does Azerbaijan routinely get criticised in the West for being a dictatorship, something President Aliyev and his government must find infuriating, but Western NGOs in Azerbaijan have at times openly backed anti-government opposition leaders in ways that must make Azerbaijan’s government wonder whether it is a target for a Western backed colour revolution.  Following the collapse of oil prices, which has caused major economic problems in Azerbaijan, it is understandable why that might have made its leadership nervous and might make it want to insure its position by drawing closer to Russia.

As for the possibility of a conflict with Russia over Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan was given a lesson of how ineffective Western support in this region would be during Russia’s comprehensive defeat of Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetia war.  As it happens President Aliyev is known to have had an angry row with US Vice-President Dick Cheney during that war, when he spurned Cheney’s request for Azerbaijan to side openly with the US and Georgia against Russia.

If Russia and Azerbaijan have had a complicated relationship but also have good reasons to draw closer to each other, the same is also true of Azerbaijan and Iran. 

Azerbaijan was formerly a province of Iran before it was conquered by Russia and incorporated by Russia into the Russian empire.  Southern Azerbaijan continues to be part of Iran to this day.  Though the people of Azerbaijan are Turkic and speak a language close to Turkish, unlike the Turks of Turkey because of their historic connection to Iran they are mainly Shia rather than Sunni.

Despite these strong connections to Iran, Azerbaijan has since the Soviet breakup been much closer to Turkey than to Iran, with Turkey giving Azerbaijan strong support in the Nagorno Karabakh dispute.  Moreover just as Azerbaijan became a centre of US and EU oil and gas projects targeted at Russia, so also it came under US pressure to become involved in the various US led projects targeted at Iran.  There have been rumours of US troops and even of US secret bases in Azerbaijan targeted at Iran, and there has even been some talk of secret US incursions into Iran from Azerbaijan’s territory.  It is widely believed that some of the plans for US attacks on Iran which are known to have been considered in Washington during the Bush II administration also involved Azerbaijan.

Understandably enough all this put a significant strain on relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, despite the two countries having no obvious points of conflict with each other and despite the common interest of both countries in having friendly relations with each other.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement has however, if only for the time being, caused tensions between the US and Iran to diminish, with US plans for attacks on Iran at least for the moment off the agenda.  That has given Azerbaijan the political space to mend its fences with Iran. 

This has come at a time when relations between Russia and Iran, and between Russia and Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey, have both been getting significantly stronger. 

The way has therefore been opened for Azerbaijan to strengthen its relations with both Iran and Russia, and to do so moreover as part of a tripartite arrangement that enables Azerbaijan to achieve a balance in its relations with each of these powers. 

That provides the background to the summit meeting between Putin, Rouhani and Aliyev which has just taken place in Baku.

All three of these states – Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan –  stand to achieve something from their common rapprochement.  The Russians are drawing Azerbaijan further away from the West whilst securing their positions in the Caspian Sea area and in the Caucasus.  They must also be hoping  to draw Azerbaijan further into the Eurasian integration processes.  The Iranians have ended the potential threat to themselves from Azerbaijan’s territory and have strengthened their relations with a rich and important country that was formerly an Iranian province.  As for Azerbaijan, it has managed to improve its relations with both its two great neighbours in a way that enables it to preserve a balance between the two of them.

Beyond this there is now optimistic talk of creating a free trade area involving the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, Iran and Azerbaijan.  Negotiating such arrangements is a hugely complex affair and one should not make the mistake of thinking that because the three countries have now publicly committed themselves to it that it will necessarily happen.  At the very least the process will take years. 

The logic and the economic benefits for all three countries of a free trade area are however obvious.  Not only would such an arrangement bring together three highly compatible economies and consolidate economic and trade links in Central Asia and in southern Eurasia, but it would also quietly allow Azerbaijan to resume trade links with Armenia (which is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union) thereby hopefully facilitating a settlement of the currently frozen Nagorno Karabakh conflict. 

However whether any of this actually happens, and how sustained the present rapprochement between Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan will be, will depend on many factors, not least the maintenance of political stability in all three of these countries, especially in Azerbaijan.

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Trump Has Gifted “No More Wars” Policy Position To Bernie Sanders (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 148.

Alex Christoforou

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RT CrossTalk host Peter Lavelle and The Duran’s Alex Christoforou discuss how US President Donald Tump appears to have ceded his popular 2016 ‘no more wars’ campaign message and policy position to Bernie Sanders and any other US 2020 candidate willing to grad onto a non-interventionist approach to the upcoming Democrat primaries.

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“Is Bernie Stealing Trump’s ‘No More Wars’ Issue?” by Patrick J. Buchanan…


The center of gravity of U.S. politics is shifting toward the Trump position of 2016.

“The president has said that he does not want to see this country involved in endless wars… I agree with that,” Bernie Sanders told the Fox News audience at Monday’s town hall meeting in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Then turning and staring straight into the camera, Bernie added:

“Mr. President, tonight you have the opportunity to do something extraordinary: Sign that resolution. Saudi Arabia should not be determining the military or foreign policy of this country.”

Sanders was talking about a War Powers Act resolution that would have ended U.S. involvement in the five-year civil war in Yemen that has created one of the great humanitarian crises of our time, with thousands of dead children amidst an epidemic of cholera and a famine.

Supported by a united Democratic Party on the Hill, and an anti-interventionist faction of the GOP led by Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee of Utah, the War Powers resolution had passed both houses of Congress.

But 24 hours after Sanders urged him to sign it, Trump, heeding the hawks in his Cabinet and National Security Council, vetoed S.J.Res.7, calling it a “dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities.”

With sufficient Republican votes in both houses to sustain Trump’s veto, that should be the end of the matter.

It is not: Trump may have just ceded the peace issue in 2020 to the Democrats. If Sanders emerges as the nominee, we will have an election with a Democrat running on the “no-more-wars” theme Trump touted in 2016. And Trump will be left defending the bombing of Yemeni rebels and civilians by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Does Trump really want to go into 2020 as a war party president?

Does he want to go into 2020 with Democrats denouncing “Trump’s endless wars” in the Middle East? Because that is where he is headed.

In 2008, John McCain, leading hawk in the Senate, was routed by a left-wing first-term senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who had won his nomination by defeating the more hawkish Hillary Clinton, who had voted to authorize the war in Iraq.

In 2012, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who was far more hawkish than Obama on Russia, lost.

Yet, in 2016, Trump ran as a different kind of Republican, an opponent of the Iraq War and an anti-interventionist who wanted to get along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and get out of these Middle East wars.

Looking closely at the front-running candidates for the Democratic nomination of 2020 — Joe Biden, Sanders, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker — not one appears to be as hawkish as Trump has become.

Trump pulled us out of the nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry and reimposed severe sanctions.

He declared Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, to which Iran has responded by declaring U.S. Central Command a terrorist organization. Ominously, the IRGC and its trained Shiite militias in Iraq are in close proximity to U.S. troops.

Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the U.S. Embassy there, closed the consulate that dealt with Palestinian affairs, cut off aid to the Palestinians, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights seized from Syria in 1967, and gone silent on Bibi Netanyahu’s threat to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Sanders, however, though he stands by Israel, is supporting a two-state solution and castigating the “right-wing” Netanyahu regime.

Trump has talked of pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the troops are still there.

Though Trump came into office promising to get along with the Russians, he sent Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine and announced a pullout from Ronald Reagan’s 1987 INF treaty that outlawed all land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

When Putin provocatively sent 100 Russian troops to Caracas — ostensibly to repair the S-400 anti-aircraft and anti-missile system that was damaged in recent blackouts — Trump, drawing a red line, ordered the Russians to “get out.”

Biden is expected to announce next week. If the stands he takes on Russia, China, Israel and the Middle East are more hawkish than the rest of the field, he will be challenged by the left wing of his party, and by Sanders, who voted “no” on the Iraq War that Biden supported.

The center of gravity of U.S. politics is shifting toward the Trump position of 2016. And the anti-interventionist wing of the GOP is growing.

And when added to the anti-interventionist and anti-war wing of the Democratic Party on the Hill, together, they are able, as on the Yemen War Powers resolution, to produce a new bipartisan majority.

Prediction: By the primaries of 2020, foreign policy will be front and center, and the Democratic Party will have captured the “no-more-wars” political high ground that Candidate Donald Trump occupied in 2016.

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Over 200 killed, hundreds injured in series of blasts at Sri Lankan hotels & churches

A series of bombings hit churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, killing more than 200 people.

RT

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Via RT…


A series of eight explosions rocked Catholic churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka as Christians began Easter Sunday celebrations, with over 200 killed and hundreds injured, media reported, citing police.

The blasts started at around 8:45am local time at St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo and St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a Catholic-majority town outside of the capital. The Zion Church in Batticaloa on the eastern coast was also targeted. At around the same time, the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury five-star hotels were also hit, police confirmed.

Two more explosions happened later in the day, targeting two more locations in Colombo. All attacks appear to have been coordinated.

At least 207 people were killed, Reuters reported, citing police. More than 450 were injured in the attacks.

Alleged footage of the aftermath, shared on social media, showed chaos and large-scale destruction inside at least one of the churches.

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Mike Pompeo reveals true motto of CIA: ‘We lied, we cheated, we stole’ (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 147.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris take a look at a Texas A&M University speech, and subsequent interview, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The former CIA Director admitted, ‘as an aside’ to the question asked, that the Intelligence agency he headed up before being appointed as the top US Diplomat had a motto “we lied, we cheated, we stole”…which, according to Pompeo, contained entire CIA training courses based on ‘lying, cheating and stealing.’

Pompeo finally speaks some truth.

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