Opinion: Armenia-Iran relations after 2018: Continuity or ambiguity?

Benyamin Poghosyan discusses the state of relations between the two neighbours in this op-ed for commonspace.eu

Relations with Iran have always been high on Armenia's foreign policy agenda. Given the closed borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia, Iran is one of only two gateways to the world for Armenia. Friendly relations with this neighboring Muslim state play a significant role in Armenian efforts to counter Azerbaijan in its attempts to depict the Karabakh conflict as a religious one and thus garner the Muslim world's support against Armenia.

Meanwhile Iran views Armenia as a significant buffer against Turkey's efforts to expand its influence in the South Caucasus. Thus, not surprisingly, Iran de facto supports the status quo in the Karabakh conflict and argues against any changes on the line of contact which may reduce the current physical distance between Azerbaijan and its Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic which has a land border with Turkey.  During Soviet times Azerbaijan was separated from its Nakhijevan exclave by the Syunik region of Armenia, and in some parts the distance was no more than 45 km, but after the Karabakh conflict that distance is now approximately 180 km. Definitely, Iran's adherence to the status quo in the Karabakh conflict has been fully in line with Armenia's vital interests. The two sides sought to also develop economic ties. In 2009 an Iran - Armenia pipeline was launched delivering annually up to 600 million cubic meters of gas within the "gas for electricity" scheme; and in December 2017 a free economic zone was opened in Armenian Meghri region bordering Iran, though till now it still lacks any meaningful activities.

Iran was mainly satisfied with the key element of Armenian foreign policy: Yerevan's strategic alliance with Russia and the hosting of a Russian military base in Armenia. From Iran's point of view, in case of a decrease of Russian influence in Armenia, the vacuum most probably will be filled by the US. Given the US - Iran confrontation this is an unwelcome prospect for Tehran which fears that the US could then use Armenian territory as a base for anti-Iranian activities. 

Not surprisingly, the April - May 2018 political upheaval in Armenia raised concerns in Iran. Coincidently, the leader of the opposition Nikol Pashinyan was elected as Prime Minister exactly the same day as President Trump announced the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Given the track record of other street forced political changes in Post - Soviet space, Iran had concerns that Armenia might follow the same pattern - deterioration of relations with Russia and   significant improvements of ties with the US. The initial coolness in Armenia - Russia relations in May - September 2018 seemed to justify Iran's concerns. The October 2018 visit to Yerevan of President Trump's then national security advisor John Bolton - the most anti-Iranian politician in Trump's administration - and his meetings with Armenian leadership, including Prime Minister Pashinyan, only exacerbated Iranians' concerns.

However, Iran did not make hasty moves, instead preferring to carefully monitor the situation. They were looking for several sources of information to make assessments, and most probably, the data shared by the Russian relevant agencies played significant role in shaping Iranian perception about political developments in Armenia. In this context, the improvement in Armenia - Russia relations at the end of 2018 was the key indicator for Tehran not to worry about any significant changes in Armenian foreign policy. Pashinyan's official visit to Iran in February 2019 seemed to further alleviate Iranian concerns. During the visit the Armenian Prime Minister reiterated that the 2018 political changes had no geopolitical agenda and were not initiated by external forces. Thus, in 2019 Armenia - Iran relations were mostly stable,   maintaining the main trends of pre - 2018 developments.

However, 2020 has brought new nuances here. There appears to be deterioration in Armenia - Russia relations. Russia's Gazprom practically ignored the Armenian government's late March 2020 appeal to decrease the price of natural gas, while Gazprom Armenia, which is a fully-owned  subsidiary of Gazprom  and which in turn owns the Armenian gas distribution network, applied to the state price regulatory commission asking to increase gas price for domestic consumers. The tensions in Armenia - Russia relations again raised the possibility of a u-turn in Armenian foreign policy.

Another worrisome sign for Iran was the decree of the Armenian President in late February 2020 to redeploy the residence of the Armenian ambassador to Israel from Yerevan to Tel-Aviv. It should be noted that the principal agreement to open an Armenian embassy in Israel was reached during the November 2017 official visit to Israel of then Armenian foreign minister Nalbandyan, but the Armenian government decision to open an embassy in Israel was only finally taken in September 2019. However, the Azerbaijan - Israel partnership has not precluded the growth of Baku - Tehran cooperation. One can assume that Yerevan's original decision to open an embassy in Israel would not have serious ramifications for Armenia - Iran relations, but this may change under current circumstances.

Another source of Iranian concern is the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov statement on April 21 that a new document concerning Karabakh conflict settlement was disseminated during the April 2019 Moscow meeting of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian foreign ministers. According to Lavrov, this document is based on a phased approach, and during the first phase some territories should be returned to Azerbaijan and communications should be opened between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Obviously, this contradicts Iranian interests to keep the Karabakh status quo intact. However, another key pattern of this offer is the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in territories which should be returned to Azerbaijan. If Iran believes that a u-turn towards the US in Armenian foreign policy is possible, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers along its borders may be a better alternative for Tehran than keeping those territories under Armenian control.

Thus, in the last two years the Armenia - Iran relations can be best described as a mix of continuity and ambiguity. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Pashinyan's recent statement in Armenian parliament that his government has not changed Armenian foreign policy but made it from  scratch may add additional layer of uncertainty in the future of Armenia - Iran relations. Tehran may interpret this as an indirect indicator of upcoming strategic changes of Armenian foreign policy in all directions, including relations with Iran.       

source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.

photo: A sign close to the Armenia-Iran border (archive picture)

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