Armenia is watching, with unease, the latest developments in neighboring Iran’s standoff with the international community over its controversial nuclear program. The new, harsher sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council on Tehran last week raise fresh questions over the growing Armenian-Iranian economic ties which successive governments in Yerevan have considered strategically important for their landlocked country.
Some local politicians and experts are now concerned that the Armenian government will come under pressure from Western powers, and the US in particular, to suspend multi-million dollar commercial projects with Iran mainly centered on energy. Sergey Shakariants, an independent political analyst, predicted “new obstacles in Iran’s relations with its neighbors, including Armenia” (www.panarmenian.net, June 10).
Hovannes Hovannisian, a senior member of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), offered a more sobering forecast: “Armenia will find itself in a severe situation, with Georgia remaining its sole connection to the outside world,” he claimed (Aravot, June 11). The pro-opposition daily, Zhamanak, speculated on the same day that Yerevan could soon be forced to openly take sides in the nuclear crisis.
The only official Armenian reaction to the UN sanctions thus far was a statement issued on June 10 by the Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Tigran Balayan, to the Armenpress news agency. “Armenia is attentively following the developments unfolding over Iran’s nuclear program and believes that all contentious issues must be resolved by means of peaceful negotiations,” he said, adding, “We hope that further efforts by Iran and the international community will lead to mutually acceptable solutions.”
The carefully worded statement said nothing about the impact of the Security Council resolution on Armenian-Iranian ties. As was the case in the past, Yerevan avoided criticizing or expressing concern about the Iranian nuclear program, underscoring the Islamic Republic’s economic and geopolitical significance for its sole Christian neighbor.
Having a warm rapport with Iran has been a rare issue of national consensus in Armenia ever since independence. The unresolved conflict over Karabakh and the resulting economic sanctions imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey have left its governments with few viable alternatives. Armenian leaders regularly praise Iran’s “balanced” stance on the Karabakh dispute and emphasize its status as one of Armenia’s two conduits to the world. President, Serzh Sargsyan, described Iran as “a reliable partner and a country with a pivotal significance in the region” during talks with Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, in Yerevan earlier this year (Statement by the Armenian presidential press service, January 27, 2010).
Iran’s clerical regime has readily reciprocated the Armenian policy, not least because of its own complex relationship with Baku and Ankara. Both the Supreme Leader Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei, and President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reaffirmed, in unusually strong terms, their commitment to enhancing Armenian-Iranian cooperation when they hosted Sargsyan in Tehran in April 2009 (EDM, April 29, 2009). Their talks reportedly provided fresh impetus to plans for building a pipeline to deliver Iranian oil to Armenia, a railroad linking the two neighboring nations, and a large hydro-electric station on the Arax River marking their border.
An inter-governmental commission on bilateral economic cooperation reported further progress towards the implementation of these ambitious projects, requiring billions of dollars in funding, after a regular session in Yerevan last January. It remained unclear, however, when precisely such work will commence, and who will finance it. Another important question emerging is whether the UN resolution has any bearing on those projects. The resolution adopted on June 9 calls for vigilance over transactions with any Iranian bank, including the central bank. It envisages punitive measures against those that are suspected of financing nuclear or missile programs. The resolution also blacklisted three business entities controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and 15 belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (Reuters, June 9).
Whether any of those entities have conducted, or plan to do business with Armenia is not yet known. Atomic energy and defense are not featured among its bilateral cooperation. Aram Safarian, a senior member of the Prosperous Armenia Party (a junior partner in Sargsyan’s governing coalition) insisted that Iran’s suspected nuclear program is “absolutely irrelevant” to its dealings with Armenia (www.armenialiberty, June 10).
Significantly for Yerevan, the tougher international sanctions do not seem to target the Iranian energy sector. Still, US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, shortly before the Security Council vote, said that the resolution could allow individual states to block foreign firms expanding Tehran’s oil and gas exports. This might potentially apply to Armenia’s plans to drastically increase its imports of Iranian natural gas through a pipeline constructed in late 2008. The bulk of that gas is due to be converted into electricity at Armenian thermal-power plants, which will then export it to Iran.
The US Ambassador in Yerevan, Marie Yovanovitch, made clear on June 2 that the fourth round of sanctions against Tehran will affect Armenia indirectly, without elaborating (Regnum, June 2). US diplomats have occasionally voiced unease over deepening Armenian-Iranian ties in the past. In July 2007, for instance, the US Charge d’Affaires in Yerevan, Anthony Godfrey, warned that they might run counter to existing international sanctions against the Iranian regime. “We have expressed our concerns to the government of Armenia on all levels,” he said at the time (www.armenialiberty.org, July 20, 2007). The Armenian-Iranian relationship has grown since then, as have Washington’s concerns over that deepening partnership.a