(RFE/FL) – The United States does not object to Armenia’s plans to step up economic cooperation with neighboring Iran following the lifting of international sanctions against Tehran, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills said on Friday.
“Armenia has the sovereign right to pursue strong, mutually beneficial relations with as many nations as it wishes,” Ambassador Mills wrote to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“With respect to Iran, the U.S. Government gratefully acknowledges the part Armenia played in making possible the diplomatic engagement that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by fully respecting the international community’s sanctions on Iran over the years, even when that effort came at some cost to Armenia and its economy,” he said, referring to Iran’s nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers.
“With the advent of Implementation Day on January 16, it is natural for Armenia to start thinking about the impact that the lifting of sanctions might have on its political and economic ties with Iran,” added Ambassador Mills.
In response to whether the U.S. believes closer ties with Iran could help to ease Armenia’s heavy dependence on Russia for energy resources, Ambassador Mills said: “We have long encouraged Armenia to diversify its energy supply, including exploring opportunities for alternative/renewable sources and greater regional integration, for the sake of greater energy efficiency and to avoid over-dependence on any one party or source.”
Armenia was quick to welcome the July 2015 agreement on Iran’s controversial nuclear program and the resulting sanctions relief. Senior Armenian officials have said the landmark deal will speed up the implementation of Armenian-Iranian energy projects regarded as strategically important by Yerevan.
President Serzh Sarkisian and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani discussed the new opportunities for boosting Armenian-Iranian commercial ties in a phone call late last month.
The two neighboring states already signed in August last year a final agreement on the construction of a new power transmission line, which is due to significantly boost exports of Armenian electricity to Iran.
Yerevan hopes that greater oil revenues and the unfreezing of its assets in the U.S. and Europe will also enable Iran to finance the construction of a major hydroelectric plant on the Armenian-Iranian border. The $350 million project has for years been stalled due to a lack of funding and serious restrictions on Armenian banking operations with Iran.
Photo Caption: U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills addresses the American Chamber of Commerce in Armenia, Yerevan, November 10, 2015.
Last week, Azerbaijan was again the focus of a U.S. foreign policy discussion. On July 1st, the Atlantic Council hosted a forum in Washington D.C. entitled, “NATO in the Caucasus: The Case of Azerbaijan.” Moderated by Mr. David Koranyi, the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, the panel featured influential analysts who cover this strategic region. These included Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim, the head of the Azerbaijani mission to NATO, Mr. Eric Ruben, the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, and Dr. Brenda Shaffer, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University. The forum was introduced by Frederick Kempe, the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council. Kempe mentioned in his opening address that the Atlantic Council is a “strong supporter for independent Azerbaijan,” while Ambassador Ibrahim praised that Atlantic Council for “promoting the agenda of Azerbaijan.”
The forum represented a new chapter in the public discussion on Azerbaijan and the wider region. It focused on U.S foreign policy in the South Caucasus, possible NATO expansion in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, and European energy security in general. Although NATO has had a footprint in the region since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the increased expansion by NATO in the area is almost unprecedented and will have a major impact on the geopolitics of the wider region. This has become increasingly relevant, particularly in light of major examples of Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008, and Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The Caucasus, due to its strategic location, has always fallen under the firm influence of larger powers, such as Russia, Iran and Turkey. Hence, the expansion of NATO in the region causes a direct challenge to Russian influence in the South Caucasus.
The forum represented a wide-ranging discussion touching on many differing aspects of NATO’s relationship with Azerbaijan, which developed as a NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) member since 1994. Chief among these was energy security, energy infrastructure protection, and ensuring future and reliable energy flow to European markets. Ambassador Ibrahim emphasized that Azerbaijan is an “energy provider to many NATO members,” highlighting its importance to NATO while painting Azerbaijan as a “very strong, active partner.” A common theme among the energy security discussion was about lowering Europe’s dependence on the Russian dominated gas supply system and diversifying Europe’s energy sources. Eric Ruben of the State Department was very clear about this, proclaiming that some countries “are dependent on Russian gas,” while Dr. Shaffer declared that energy security should not be thought of as separate to security in general. The Southern Gas Corridor is a major European energy project that will bring Caspian oil and gas into Europe via Turkey. It is a “highly strategic choice” and one that “we talk about… a lot in Washington, D.C.,” Dr. Shaffer said. Other areas mentioned include Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel, its support in the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, and combating human trafficking, counter-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and land mine clearance.
However, what the writers found interesting about the forum is what was not covered. There was very little mention of Azerbaijan’s bilateral relationship with Russia. Interestingly, there was absolutely no mention of Azerbaijan’s acquisition of $4 billion worth of modern weaponry from Russia, including some of the most technologically advanced offensive weapons. The influx of Russian weapons has resulted in a regional arms race which has further fueled instability in a region already rife with daily cross-border attacks that have left at least 18 soldiers dead on both sides of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, this year. These actions run counter to Russia’s repeated claims of maintaining military parity and balance in the region towards both Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is in addition to the numerous trade and energy projects that Azerbaijan continues to enjoy with Russia. Just last month, high-level Russian officials traveled to Baku, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Economic Minister Alexei Ulyukaev, and Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin, to name a few. The sheer size of the delegation and the number of trips taken highlight Moscow’s intention to deepen its relationship with Azerbaijan. “It is a very painful subject and our people are worried that our strategic ally sells weapons to Azerbaijan,” Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan told Argentina’s Clarin newspaper last week.
An Armenian Embassy representative, Deputy Chief of Mission Andranik Hovhannisyan, was present at the forum and noted the extensive relationship that Armenia also enjoys with NATO. For example, Armenia, which has also developed relations with NATO since 1994 as a PfP member, continues to maintain a significant peace keeping mission in Kosovo, while Azerbaijan withdrew its peace keeping force from Kosovo in 2008, he said. Ibrahim referred to this withdrawal during the conference as a “political decision,” due to his government’s stance against the internationally recognized principle of self-determination. It is also worth noting that Armenia has contributed significantly to NATO-led operations in Afghanistan, most notably with the deployment of over one hundred combat soldiers. In addition, Armenia assisted the coalition’s combat operations during the Iraq war.
While the discussion generally attempted to portray Azerbaijan as an indispensable partner to NATO, one could make the case that the NATO-Armenia relationship is as advanced, if not more so, than the level of partnership enjoyed with Baku. Furthermore, the Azerbaijan government’s pardon, promotion and glorification of an Azerbaijani soldier, Ramil Safarov, who was convicted in Hungary for the 2004 murder of an Armenian officer, Gurgen Margaryan, is unbecoming of a NATO aspirant. Margaryan was murdered in his sleep by an ax-wielding Safarov during a NATO PfP English language training course. One could also argue that this is not the type of behavior that should be rewarded, as it runs counter to the purpose of the NATO PfP which is to “increase stability, diminish threats to peace and build strengthened security relationships between partner countries NATO.“