Christian Armenia and Islamic Iran: An Unusual “Special Relationship”?

The historical and cultural relations between Armenia and Iran date back to over two thousand years. Ancient Armenia and Parthia (Iran) had kindred royal dynasties – the Arsacids. The Arsacid dynasty ruled the Near East for over four centuries, until the branch of the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia was overthrown by the Sassanian revolt of 224 A.D. This was a fatal blow to the dynasty and it led to Arsacid’s eventual demise in 428 A.D.[i]

The contemporary Armenian-Iranian relations developed after Armenia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Republic of Armenia is located North-West from Iran and is one of Iran’s South Caucasian neighbours, sharing 42-kilometer long border. Since the collapse of the USSR, Armenia has managed to develop a strong relationship with Iran; nowadays these two countries have stable economic and cultural cooperation. At first glance it might be unusual and somewhat illogical to think that the first Christian nation would be able to build a strong bilateral ties with the beacon of pan-Islamism. Yet, when one looks deeper into the fragile situation that exists in the South Caucasus and the Near East, it becomes clear that the “special relationship” between Armenia and Iran responds to very specific regional and geopolitical concerns. For landlocked Armenia, the border with Iran is one of the two lifelines that connect Armenia to the outside world; the other, the border with Georgia, has closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, due to ongoing territorial conflict.[ii] The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, is perceived as a hostile and unfriendly state by the United States and many other Western states ever since the 1979 revolution, when US-friendly Shah Pahlavi’s regime was overthrown.[iii]

In 2018, US National Security Adviser John Bolton, made a state visit to Armenia with the aim of further isolating Iran by putting pressure on the new Armenian government to decrease its special ties with Iran. This policy paper aims to illustrate that Armenia should not succumb to US pressures, as cutting ties with Iran would be detrimental to the national security of Armenia. Armenia must further forge its relationship with Iran by deepening trade and acting as a bridge connecting Iran to Russian.

Why does Armenia needs Iran?

The tiny border with Iran has a paramount significance for Armenia. Ever since its independence, Armenia was involved in a bloody war with Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian populated Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, and as a result of this Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan is closed. Turkey, a key supporter of Azerbaijan and Armenia’s western neighbour, imposed an economic blockade on Armenia.[iv] Although Armenia shares a border with Georgia, the relationship between the two has been one of mutual mistrust and suspicion, largely due to the majority Armenian populated Javakhk region. Georgia treats the Armenians of Javakhk region with suspicion, due to the former’s alleged intentions of seceding from Georgia and unifying with Armenia. Moreover, the Verkhny Lars checkpoint (border crossing between Georgia and Russia) is the only overland route, through which Armenia imports and exports goods to Russia. [v]  The Verkhny Lars border crossing is rather poorly developed and overtime it has been closed due to bad weather conditions. Therefore, Armenia is left with its 42-kilometer long border with Iran as its only reliable connection to the outside world.

Besides the unfavourable geographic position, Armenia has also been too dependent on Russia. Armenia’s energy and telecommunications sectors have largely been under Russia’s control and Armenia is the only country in the South Caucasus that is a member of Russian-led CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union.[vi] Moreover, Armenia hosts the 102nd Russian military base in the city of Gyumri and is fully dependent on Russia for arms supplies. This overdependence allows Russia to exercise enormous leverage over Armenia. Armenia needs an alternative to decrease its dependence on Russia and Iran can play a key role in diversifying Armenia’s economic resources. Nevertheless, overcoming the dependence on Russia will be challenging for Armenia, as Russia will seek to preserve its dominance over Armenia.

Why does Iran need Armenia?

Although both Iran and Azerbaijan – the latter, Armenia’s sworn enemy – are Shia Muslim countries, significant tensions have existed between the two since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Iran has a huge Azeri population in its northern cities (in fact, there are more ethnic Azeris living in Northern Iran than in Azerbaijan) and Iran has been cautious of not allowing any unification moves with Azerbaijan. Additionally, the close cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel, Iran’s regional arch-enemy, is perceived as a real security threat for Tehran. Azerbaijan is a major importer of Israeli-made drones and is Israel’s most reliable oil supplier.[vii] Iran expressed extreme alarm when Azerbaijan granted Israel access to air bases on the Iran border. Azerbaijan’s high-ranked officials denied the rumours, yet the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan remain strained. Iran perceives the Azerbaijan-Israel relations as a cooperation directed against Iran.[viii] Iran’s official stance towards resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is balanced and it neither favours Armenia nor Azerbaijan, yet in reality Iran’s uneasy partnership with Azerbaijan leads to a closer “below the surface” cooperation with Armenia. It is widely assumed that without Iran’s cooperation in the economic and commercial spheres during the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1990s, Armenia’s chances of survival would have been slim.[ix]  

Policy Proposals

  1. Deepen Armenian-Iranian economic ties

Despite the mounting pressures from the current US administration, reducing cooperation with Iran should be off the table for the Armenia government. Succumbing to US pressures will leave Armenia with no reliable roots of communication with potential future Asian partners and the broader outside world. The Nagorno-Karabakh war left Armenia isolated from regional projects; deepening cooperation with Iran can help to break this deadlock. Trilateral economic cooperation, including infrastructural projects that will connect Tehran, Yerevan, and Tbilisi, will have the potential to link the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). New infrastructural projects can significantly enhance Iran’s involvement in the South Caucasus as well as help Iran cope with the US’ assertive policies. For landlocked Armenia, an access to the Persian Gulf and broader Asian markets will boost its economic cooperation, further halting the effectiveness of Turkey’s imposed blockade.

Armenia is highly dependent on Russia for its gas imports, so it should focus on the long-term objective to reconstruct the infrastructure necessary to diversify its energy imports.[x] Significant investments will be needed to build new gas pipelines that will connect Armenia to energy-rich Iran. This, however, is easier said than done, as Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, owns Armenia’s gas pipeline infrastructure and is unlikely to compromise its dominant position.[xi] If successful, increased gas dealings with Iran will diversify Armenia’s energy imports and decrease the country’s near-total dependence on Russia.

  1. Initiate limited military-security cooperation

The establishment of immediate military contacts or arms sales between Armenia and Iran is highly unlikely; instead, military cooperation between the two states should be gradual. Despite rocky relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, it is unlikely that Iran will openly take a pro-Armenian discourse in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or supply Armenia with arms, largely because of Iran’s substantial ethnic Azerbaijani population.[xii] Additionally, Russia has long been the main arms supplier of Armenia and any initiative which threaten to break Russia’s monopoly may be perceived as hostile by Kremlin. Nonetheless, Iran and Armenia can gradually deepen their military cooperation without upsetting domestic or regional actors. For instance, they could co-operate in anti-drug trafficking operation. Drug trafficking has been a long-term problem for the Iranian government and in recent years there has been a substantial increase in drug smuggling attempts from Iran to Armenia.[xiii] Mutual cooperation between the national security services (potentially with limited military support) of both countries in the counter-narcotics field may be a positive step towards strengthening the military-security between the two countries.

Conclusion

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Iran, due to their precarious geopolitical positions, have managed to develop strong and trustworthy partnership. For decades, both countries have largely been isolated from the outside world. In case of Armenia, the blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan leave the country with only one reliable neighbour – Iran. The escalating tensions between the US and Iran, as well as Washington’s aggressive diplomacy to isolate Iran, make Yerevan one of Tehran’s few reliable allies. New infrastructural projects will help to strengthen the Iranian-Armenian partnership. Economically, it will help the countries to overcome isolation by finding new trade markets with Russia and Asian countries. In the military sphere, joint military exercise or arms deals remain a rather long-term objective; nevertheless, mutual cooperation for combating drug trafficking can be a good starting point.

Garik Mirzoyan is researcher for the Defence and Diplomacy policy centre. 

References

[i] Babakhanian, A. (1966) Hayoc Patmutyun: Hin Patmutyn. Yerevan, ‘Hayastan’ Printing House.  

[ii] Janbazian, R. (2014) Land-Locked: The Necessity of Open Borders in Armenia. TheArmenianWeekly. Available from: https://armenianweekly.com/2014/12/23/land-locked-necessity-open-borders-armenia/ [Accessed 24th March 2019]. 

[iii] Cottam, R. (1979) Goodbye to America’s Shah. ForeignPolicy. Available from: https://foreignpolicy.com/1979/03/16/goodbye-to-americas-shah/ [Accessed 29th March 2019].

[iv] Ismailzade, F. (2005) Turkey-Azerbaijan: The Honeymoon is Over. Turkish Policy Quarterly. 4 (4), 1-11. Available from: http://turkishpolicy.com/images/stories/2005-04-neighbors/TPQ2005-4-ismailzade.pdf [Accessed 14th January 2019].

[v] Moniquet, C. & Racimora, W. (2013) The Armenian-Iran Relationship: Strategic implications for security in the South Caucasus Region. European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. 12-15. Available from: http://www.esisc.org/upload/publications/analyses/the-armenian-iran-relationship/Armenian-Iran%20relationship.pdf [Accessed 2nd April 2019].

[vi] TheMoscowTimes (2014) Armenia: Trying to Break Free of Economic Dependence on Russia?. TheMoscowTimes. Available from: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2015/05/19/armenia-trying-to-break-free-of-economic-dependence-on-russia-a46660 [Accessed 21st March 2019].

[vii] Ismayilov, E. (2015) Israel and Azerbaijan: The Evolution of a Strategic Partnership. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. 7 (1), 69-76. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/23739770.2013.11446535?needAccess=true [Accessed 14th March 2019].

[viii]Goksel, O. (2015) Beyond Countering Iran: A Political Economy of Azerbaijan-Israel Relations. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 42 (4), 655-675. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13530194.2015.1048973?needAccess=true [Accessed 23rd March 2019].

[ix] De Waal, T. (2003) Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War. New York, New York University Press. pp. 204-206.

[x] Kucera, J. (2018) After Bolton takes aim at Russia and Iran, is Armenia the collateral damage? Eurasianet. Available from: https://eurasianet.org/after-bolton-takes-aim-at-russia-and-iran-is-armenia-the-collateral-damage [Accessed 21st February 2019].

[xi] Giragosian, R. (2019) Nor “Vstahutyan Chgnazham” Hayastani artaqin qaghaqakanutyan mej. Arajin Lratvakan. Available from: https://www.1in.am/2529550.html?fbclid=IwAR3AjeGyKSGcrLbq41xe9_ztSbG6s2uugBfJHSeR7du4o5n9GccsYY1aNkM [Accessed 1 April 2019].

[xii] Koknar, A. M. (2006) Iranian Azeris: A Giant Minority. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Available from: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iranian-azeris-a-giant-minority [Accessed 31st March 2019].

[xiii] INCSR. (2015) Armenia: Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Available from: https://www.state.gov/j/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2015/vol1/238943.htm [Accessed 26th March 2019].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s