Fears are growing in Armenia that a military conflict between the United States and Iran could materialize, forcing Yerevan to choose between the two sides. Both Washington and Tehran are presently key political and economic partners for the South Caucasus state.
Iran is probably the most important country among Armenia's neighbors, a position encouraged by Turkey and Azerbaijan's blockade of Armenia's borders for over a decade. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Despite the differences in their political systems, Western-oriented Armenia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained a steady friendship and have expanded their economic cooperation in recent years. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Against this backdrop, belligerent rhetoric used by Bush administration officials when discussing Iran's controversial nuclear research program has prompted serious concern in Yerevan. [For background see the Eurasia Inside archive]. Although US officials insist that Washington has no intention of launching a preemptive strike against Iran, local media throughout the South Caucasus presented such a scenario as a very real possibility. For example, the March 8 issue of the Armenian daily Zhamanak Yerevan pondered "Will Armenia be included in the Iranian turbulence?"
A recent statement of Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, head of the US Missile Defense Agency, that an anti-missile radar defense system in the South Caucasus would be "useful, but not essential" has fueled these concerns. The Armenian public has largely interpreted Obering's words as another sign of increasing tensions in the region, and a tip-off that Washington intends to counter not only Iran, but also Russia. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Of all three South Caucasus states, Armenia alone has clearly expressed opposition to the prospect of such a deployment. "Armenia, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, does not want an increase of armament[s] in the region," Gen. Mikael Haroutiunian, chief of staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, told reporters on March 5.
Analysts and politicians alike share the opinion that a military response to Iran would be highly dangerous for Armenia. "Iran has a very important stabilizing role in the region, including in the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan," Armen Ashotian, a member of the parliamentary faction of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, told the Noyan Tapan news agency on March 6. He expressed a concern that preparations for Armenia's May 12 parliamentary elections may distract its political elite from preparing to face the danger of such a conflict.
Like officials in Georgia and Azerbaijan, political leaders in Yerevan have given no sign that it believes a conflict between the US and Iran is possible. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told reporters on March 9 that the Iranian issue was not discussed during his March 5 meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington DC. Oskanian also reaffirmed the commitment of his government to the foreign policy of "complementarity," the attempt to remain on good terms with all three regional powers the US, Russia and Iran.
Meanwhile, one political scientist, Levon Melik-Shahnazarian, has already come up with likely scenarios for what he sees as an inevitable US attack against Iran. Among the options, according to Melik-Shahnazarian, recently named the director of the DeFacto news agency, are "pinpoint hits" on Iranian nuclear facilities (a scenario, he warns, that could pose "a new Chernobyl" for Armenia), and land invasion and domestic uprisings using Iran's large ethnic Azeri population.
Not all Armenian analysts share this widespread pessimism about how US-Iran relations could affect Armenia, however. A US attack on Iran would do little to change Iranian policy on nuclear development or decrease the Islamic Republic's influence on the region, noted Aleksander Iskandarian, director of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan, in a March 13 interview with Noyan Tapan. "It seems to me that the role of rational thinking is not small in American politics," Iskandarian added.
Nonetheless, defining Armenia's alliances in such a tangle is a problem whose existence few analysts dispute. The policy of "complementarity" must be abandoned as "no longer suitable" for the current situation in the South Caucasus, argued political scientist Melik-Shahnazarian. Andranik Migranian, a Moscow-based political scientist, shares this view, telling Shant TV on March 5 that Armenia cannot continue to keep silent, "hoping that the problems may be resolved by themselves."
Abandoning the policy, though, could force a clear-cut choice to be made about where Armenia's sympathies lie, observers say. The pro-Western Zhamanak Yerevan daily has posited that Armenia should side with the West, or risk losing to Azerbaijan territories that it controls south of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aleksander Iskandarian of the Caucasus Media Institute, however, contends that another consideration should come into play. Washington understands, he said, that Armenia has no other option but to cooperate with Iran, and does not wish to reinforce the country's traditional dependence on Russia.
"If Armenia hangs on one thread only, the Russian one, it will have much less room for maneuver than in case of having any second thread to hang on," Iskandarian commented. "With more freedom, Armenia will have a better opportunity to follow its natural path of development, to the West."
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.