Even as events in the Ukraine unfold so tumultuously, a subtler but comparably disturbing situation elsewhere in the former USSR threatens to undermine Western interests there and throughout the Middle East. Although widely assumed to be a solid ally, Armenia has by all indications quietly moved toward a strategic rapprochement with Iran – and, by extension, Russia – that for starters will help U.S. adversaries circumvent the critical provisions of the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) and sanctions against Russia.
As a matter of sheer realpolitik, it’s not hard to understand the motives at play in Yereva, the Armenian capital city. Flash back to the efforts of both the Clinton and the second Bush administrations to use ISA sanctions as a way to interdict oil pipeline routes that would have enriched Iran. What emerged as a result was an alternative U.S.-approved route from Azerbaijan to Turkey.
But Azerbaijan is Armenia’s direct economic and geopolitical antagonist while there hasn’t been much love lost between Armenia and Turkey since the tragic events of 1915 under the Ottoman Empire, however shrouded in time those events may be. In global politics, as in life, my enemies’ enemy often has certain charms. For Armenia, those charms now entail stronger, more extensive economic relations with Iran. It is certainly no secret that, for one, Armenia is Iran’s biggest direct gas customer, especially since May 2009 when Iran and Armenia launched a trans-national gas pipeline built by Gazprom, the world’s largest extractor of natural gas based in and owned by – yes – Russia.
Further evidence of Armenian/Iranian friendship is plentiful. Both Tehran and Yerevan have pushed hard for progress on the construction of the Southern Armenia Railway, which will more closely link the two countries. Meanwhile, in May 2014, Iran and Armenia increased weekly flights between the two countries from three to 50. That’s not tourism. That’s business.
The situation is yet more perilous. Armenia has reassured the West that its banking controls are strong and that Iran cannot launder money through its banks. According to U.S. officials, however, Iran has easy access to Armenian banks operating in the Armenia-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh territory whence Iran can draw on funds to expand its nuclear and missile programs or, for that matter, continue to subsidize terrorist organizations.
In 2013, one Western UN diplomat identified Armenia’s ACBA as “a bank that has come up in connection with Iran.” The former Soviet Republic is a real plum for Tehran in any event since Armenia is a listed U.S. ally and, as a former Soviet republic, purportedly wary of the Russian bear. For America, that is very reassuring. For Iran, it’s a ready-made fifth column.
“The Iranian relationship with Armenia is driven by a shared sense of isolation,” says Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center. “For Armenia, Iran offers an important alternative to closed borders [with Turkey and Azerbaijan] and unresolved conflict [of Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan] and tension with its other neighbors, and offers an opportunity to overcome Armenia’s geographic isolation as a small landlocked state.”
Then, of course, there’s the Putin factor. When in January 2015, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Armenia (with scant media fanfare), he lauded Armenia’s accession to the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), citing the EEU as a platform for “broader cooperation options to Iran, Armenia, and Russia.” Earlier, Iran’s ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Sanai, said that Tehran will seriously look at signing a memorandum of understanding on trade with the EEU. In fact, Sanai has publicly envisioned Iranian-Russian trade jumping from the present annual $3-5 billion to $70 billion.
The geopolitical ramifications are obviously significant, especially as Russia will now have more alternatives to soften the blow of Western sanctions. But Russia has even more to gain than that.
To better assess the ominous signals that Zarif and Sanai are sending, we need to look more closely at Russia’s role in the region. Since Armenian independence in 1991, Russia has served Yerevan – not as a sword-rattling aggressor-in-waiting – but as a geopolitical protector. When we combine that traditional role with the impact of the EEU and the economic assets that it’s already secured in Armenia, what’s clear is that Russia stands to be the key economic force in Armenia. Putin thus has everything to gain by helping to buttress the burgeoning Armenian/Iranian partnership. And we have everything to lose.
Happily, we need not underestimate current levels of concern in the U.S. Congress. Recently, the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing dubbed “State Sponsor of Terror: The Global Threat of Iran.” At that hearing, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) nailed it when he raised “questions about Russia’s involvement through Armenia in the backdoor circumvention of the sanctions that are in place today,” and that “Russia’s involvement is making it clear [that] all they are really doing is guaranteeing a slow march toward a nuclear Iran … We would be remiss if we did not … recognize that all the way back in the early 80s…President Ronald Reagan referred to an evil empire, at that time the Soviet Union.”
The placards of Politburo chieftains may be gone but the same imperialist agenda remains. Today, Iran’s partnership with Russia, a fundamentally destabilizing force in world affairs, is aided and abetted by Armenia’s partnership with both members of that unholy alliance.
Perhaps our “ally” in Yerevan needs to be reminded of the price that small countries must ultimately pay for helping enemies of the US circumvent sanctions.
Dan Burton is a former Member of Congress representing Indiana’s 5th Congressional District. He served in Congress from 1983 until 2013 notably serving on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.