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Armenia-Iran: Good neighbourly relations absolute necessity

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Some experts believe that Iran’s cooperation with Armenia could become costly for the latter owing to the ever increasing hostility demonstrated by US President Donald Trump towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. They predict that American sanctions and extensive pressure on Iran could throw Armenia into a kind of blockade.

What comes to mind in connection with this is the words that are thought to have been said by Napoleon Bonaparte: geography is destiny. Even though it could not always be the case but it definitely is with the Caucasus. There are few if any regions whose military, strategic and economic significance would combine with unprecedented ethno-religious diversity on a fairly small territory with historically conditioned disputable issues. This naturally creates all the conditions for an atmosphere of permanent tension which over the last two centuries has repeatedly exploded in armed conflicts and wars.

In the 21st century, the situation in the Caucasus is formed by a most sophisticated political gamut of bilateral and multilateral relations among three former Soviet republics of Transcaucasus – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and also, not in the last place, by the Caucasian states of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Besides, one should not forget about the military and political influence of non-regional countries, first of all, the United States, the European Union and Israel.

Undoubtedly, today we are witnessing the influence of multiple forces in different areas of  Caucasian politics, and these forces are dragging Caucasian states into various alliances. Moreover, the regional policy of each of the South Caucasian states is determined by a variety of factors that spring from the specifics of bilateral and multilateral relations.

But we will not analyze the whole spectrum of complicated and entangled relations between groups of countries and within groups proper. We will focus on relations beween Iran and Armenia.

What is the role of Armenia, taking into account the US anti-Iran sanctions?

Iran is the largest multi-ethnic state in the Middle East. Present day Iran is home to more than 40 nationalities, each at a different level of socio-economic development. The multi-million population of Iran is ethnically related to the peoples of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia.

For centuries, Iran has been maintaining close economic and cultural ties with the peoples of the Transcaucasus. But its relations with Armenia stand out as somewhat specific.

Significantly, the first state formations of Armenia and Iran appeared in the VII – VI centuries BC, that is, nearly 3 thousand years ago. Since then their territories and regimes have undergone numerous changes, but Armenians and Persians, as state-forming ethnic groups, have passed through the centuries unchanged.

An idea which is deeply rooted in both the Iranian and Armenian consciousness is that Persians and Armenians boast ancient culture that cannot be thrown into oblivion. This explains cultural ties between the two nations and a comprehensive respect for the specifics of each other’s national and religious mentality.

At present, Iran is home to more than 200 thousand Armenians. Iranian Armenians enjoy substantial rights. Under the Constitution of Iran, they have guaranteed representation in parliament and local councils. Not so long ago, Russian Orientalist Karine Gevorkian reported that in 2018, a young Armenian woman was appointed head of the financial department of the Iranian oil company.

The Armenian Christian community is the largest of its kind in Iran. Functioning throughout the country are about 200 Armenian churches and about 30 Armenian schools. Some universities have departments of the Armenian language and culture. Iran publishes books and magazines in Armenian. Also, there are Armenian theatrical, cultural, and sports societies, and the Armenian Club.

It should be pointed out that Iranian Armenians are taking an active part in the social and political life of the country.

Naturally, Iranian Armenians maintain permanent ties with the Republic of Armenia, which undoubtedly cements Iranian-Armenian relations at the state level.

Although Iran and Armenia are not comparable in their scope and position, as history and current geopolitics show, they need each other.

Iran is interested to maintain ties with Armenia, in the first place, because, as it was already mentioned above, the country is home to an influential Armenian community. Secondly, given that the Armenian diaspora exists in many countries of the world, it could become a kind of bridge connecting Tehran with the capitals of other, not always friendly, states where an Armenian community is also active. Also, it is through authoritative Armenian lobbies that Iran could secure favorable political and economic solutions. Thirdly, the territory of Armenia, as a neighboring country, is important for Iran as a corridor to the North (through Georgia) and further to Russia, which is clearly beneficial for Iran considering the current  geopolitical situation.

Armenia, in turn, is also interested in friendly relations with neighboring Iran, not only on account of links between the Armenian diaspora and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran assumed a fairly balanced position regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by refraining from backing fellow believers from a neighboring country and complying with the Minsk format, the decisions of the Minsk Group (OSCE).

Moreover, the continuing trade and economic ties between Armenia and Iran have become, to a certain extent, a lifeline for Yerevan. Blocked by Turkey and Azerbaijan from two sides, Armenia  has only two windows to the outside world: via the borders with Georgia and Iran. Therefore, for Armenia Iran is of vital importance. The Armenian-Iranian border, running through the Araks River, is the shortest for two countries – a mere 35 km. Nevertheless, this border is of great importance, both for Armenia and for Iran, being used for developing trade and economic relations between the two countries and promoting touristm. Statistical data say Iranians (and not only Armenian) enjoy visiting Armenia.

In recent years, Armenia and Iran have seen a successful implementation of various economic programs. One of the first projects was a bridge erected across the Araks River. Also, two high-voltage power transmission lines have been built, a third one is currently under construction.

One of the key areas of economic cooperation between Armenia and Iran is provided by an interim agreement signed in May 2018 between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) on the creation of a free trade zone. Thus, there have appeared opportunities for merging the 180-million market of the EEU with the 80-million Iranian market. Since Armenia is the only EAEU country that has a land border with Iran, it plays a crucial role in cooperation between the EAEU and Iran, which provides it with an opportunity to develop its relations with Iran.

Undoubtedly, Armenia and Iran’s shared interest in bilateral cooperation envisages good prospects for the future. However, it is not that simple, as there have arrived new times, both for Yerevan, and Tehran.

In 2018 Armenia saw a change of government, as a result of which Nikola Pashinyan was elected Prime Minister. There have been changes in domestic policy. As for foreign policy, at least in relation to Iran, there have been no particular  changes and, in all likelihood, there will not be any. Given the present-day conditions, good-neighborly relations between Yerevan and Tehran are not a luxury, but an urgent need.

In this regard, Nikola Pashinyan’s official visit to Iran in February 2019 is of special significance. During the visit the two parties held high-level talks with the participation of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who rarely receives foreign guests. The negotiations were held in a fairly warm atmosphere, with both sides underscoring the importance of bilateral relations and expressing readiness to exert efforts to develop them.

In the course of above-mentioned talks, representatives of Armenia and Iran signaled the high level of political cooperation, emphasizing yet again that the current level of economic cooperation does not match the full potential of the parties involved. Although by the end of 2018, trade turnover between Armenia and Iran had reached $ 364 million, which is the highest figure since 1991.

Among major projects of the Armenian-Iranian bilateral economic cooperation program is  the construction of the third power line, the implementation of the Meghri hydropower project, the North-South highway corridor, trilateral and quadrilateral economic cooperation with Georgia and Russia.

What makes the visit to Iran by Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan special is that Iran is under the US sanctions. In 2018, a transitional year for Armenia, the United States subjected Iran to unprecedented pressure. In addition, the US “secondary sanctions” were imposed against all countries, legal entities and physical persons of foreign countries which dare to maintain relations with Iran. This meant a challenge for Armenia, in many ways economically connected with Iran.

In October 2018, US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to secure support for US plans to further isolate Iran. Reports say Washington is lobbying for the closure of the Armenian border with Iran through opening the border with Turkey.

While in Yerevan, Bolton told Prime Minister Pashinyan that since the United States will pursue the policy of sanctions against Iran, the Armenian-Iranian border is a “big problem.” Pashinyan responded by saying the following: “We respect the requests and national interests of any country, but Armenia has its own national  interests, which do not always coincide with the interests and ideas of other countries.” But as they say, there could be options.

It is necessary to emphasize that Washington, despite its hostile policy towards the IRI, has always had to tolerate cooperation between Armenia and Iran. Such tolerance is due to the US awareness of the geo-economic situation of Armenia, which, without extensive ties with Iran, will face social and economic problems. In addition, as said before, the Armenian lobby has a lot of sway in Washington, especially in the US Congress, which does not give much say to Iran’s opponents with regard to Armenia. That this is true is confirmed by the absence of any US sanctions against Armenia. That’s why John Bolton all but voiced proposals, and not warnings or threats. Suren Sargsyan, Chairman of the Armenian Center for American Studies, said recently, “Washington is fully aware of the situation and the realities that exist in the region. This means that the United States will never pressure Armenia into rejecting Iran or Russia. And this is good, because Washington knows that we will not survive without Iran and Russia … “

As is known, besides the United States Iran has another “big friend” – Israel. Apparently,  the strengthening of Armenian-Iranian relations is not welcome in Jerusalem, and Yerevan is aware of this. The Armenian diplomacy has taken sophisticated measures to neutralize the negative Israeli reaction. Right after Prime Minister Pashinyan’s visit to Iran, Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigor Hovhannisyan paid a visit to Israel, where he discussed opening an embassy in Israel “in order to bring bilateral relations to a new high”. The Armenian delegation also focused on organizational issues related to the upcoming visit to Israel by Armenian Prime Minister Nikola Pashinyan and Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan.

In all likelihood, the main point of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s foreign policy agenda and the main goal of his government is tolerance and absence of problems in relations with foreign countries: with Moscow, with Tehran, th Washington, with Brussels, with Jerusalem.

Thus, it is possible to conclude that the change of government in Armenia and large-scale US sanctions against Iran and its partners did not affect the stable nature of Armenian-Iranian relations. In these conditions, the Armenian-Iranian border is unlikely to ever be closed – a complete blockade of Armenia is highly impossible. Moreover, the small Armenia, pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy, has become an important factor in ensuring security in the South Caucasus. 

From our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

Georgia Returns to the Old New Silk Road

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Georgia has historically been at the edge of empires. This has been both an asset and a hindrance to the development of the country. Hindrance because Georgia’s geography requires major investments to override its mountains, gorges and rivers. An asset because Georgia’s location allowed the country from time to time to position itself as a major transit territory between Europe and the Central Asia, and China further away.

This geographic paradigm has been well in play in shaping Georgia’s geopolitical position even since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of modern technologies. Thereafter, Georgia has been playing a rebalancing game by turning to other regional powers to counter the resurgent Russia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran (partly) and bigger players such as the EU and the US are those which have their own interest in the South Caucasus. However, over the past several years yet another power, China, with its still evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been slowly emerging in the South Caucasus.

This how a new Silk Road concept gradually emerged at the borders of Georgia. In fact, a closer look at historical sources from the ancient, medieval or even 15th-19th cc. history of Georgia shows an unchanged pattern of major trade routes running to the south, west, east and north of Georgia. Those routes were usually connected to outer Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian hinterland.

Only rarely did the routes include parts of the Georgian land and, when it happened, it lasted for merely a short period of time as geography precluded transit through Georgia: the Caucasus Mountains and seas constrained movement, while general geographic knowledge for centuries remained limited.

It was only in the 11th-12th cc. that Georgian kings, David IV, Giorgi III and Queen Tamar, spent decades of their rule trying to gain control over neighboring territories with the goal to control the famous Silk Roads. Since, foreign invasions (Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, Russians) have largely prevented Georgia from playing a major transit role for transcontinental trade.

This lasted until the break-up of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Georgia has returned to its positioning between the Black and Caspian seas, between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Major roads, pipelines and railway lines go through Georgian territory. Moreover, major works are being done to expand and build existing and new Georgian ports on the Black Sea with the potential to transform Georgia into a sea trade hub.

A good representation of Georgia’s rising position on the Silk Road was a major event held in Tbilisi on October 22-23 when up to 2000 politicians, potential investors from all over the world, visited the Georgian capital. The event was held for the third time since 2015 and attracted due attention. In total, 300 different meetings were held during the event.

The hosting of the event underscores how Georgia has recently upped its historical role as a regional hub connecting Europe and Asia. On the map, it is in fact the shortest route between China and Europe. There is a revitalization of the ancient Silk Road taking place in Georgia. This could in turn make the country an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment. Indeed, the regional context also helps Tbilisi to position itself, as Georgia has Free Trade Agreements with Turkey, the CIS countries, the EFTA and China and a DCFTA with the European Union, comprising a 2.3 billion consumer market.

Thus, from a historical perspective, the modern Silk Road concept emanating from China arguably represents the biggest opportunity Georgia has had since the dissolution of the unified Georgian monarchy in 1490 when major roads criss-crossed the Georgian territory. In the future, when/if successive Georgian governments continue to carry out large infrastructural projects (roads, railways, sea ports), Tbilisi will be able to use those modern ‘Silk Roads’ to its geopolitical benefit, namely, gain bigger security guarantees from various global and regional powers to uphold its territorial integrity.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Eastern Europe

Strategic Black Sea falls by the wayside in impeachment controversy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Presidents Donald J. Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a plateful of thorny issues on their agenda when they met in the White House this week.

None of the issues, including Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria, its acquisition of a Russian anti-missile system and its close ties to Russia and Iran, appear to have been resolved during the meeting between the two men in which five Republican senators critical of Turkey participated.

The failure to narrow differences didn’t stop Mr. Trump from declaring that “we’ve been friends for a long time, almost from day-one. We understand each other’s country. We understand where we are coming from.”

Mr. Trump’s display of empathy for an illiberal leader was however not the only tell-tale sign of the president’s instincts. So was what was not on the two men’s agenda: security in the Black Sea that lies at the crossroads of Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and NATO member Turkey.

The Black Sea is a flashpoint in multiple disputes involving Russia and its civilizationalist definition of a Russian world that stretches far beyond the country’s internationally recognized borders and justifies its interventions in Black Sea littoral states like Ukraine and Georgia.

The significance of the absence of the Black Sea on the White House agenda is magnified by the disclosure days earlier that Mr. Trump had initially cancelled a US freedom of navigation naval mission in the Black Sea after CNN had portrayed it as American pushback in the region.

The disclosure came in a transcript of closed-door testimony in the US House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump’s policy towards Ukraine by Christopher Anderson, a former advisor to Kurt Volker, the US special representative to Ukraine until he resigned in September.

Mr. Anderson testified that Mr. Trump phoned his then national security advisor, John Bolton, at home to complain about the CNN story. He said the story prompted the president to cancel the routine operation of which Turkey had already been notified.

The cancellation occurred at a moment that reports were circulating in the State Department about an effort to review US assistance to Ukraine.

“We met with Ambassador Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the president had called him to complain about that news report… I can’t speculate as to why…but that…operation was cancelled, but then we were able to get a second one for later in February. And we had an Arleigh-class destroyer arrive in Odessa on the fifth anniversary of the Crimea invasion,” Mr. Anderson said.

The operation was cancelled weeks after the Russian coast guard fired on Ukrainian vessels transiting the Strait of Kerch that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and separates Russian-annexed Crimea from Russian mainland. ‘This was a dramatic escalation,” Mr. Anderson said.

Mr. Trump at the time put a temporary hold on a condemnatory statement similar to ones that had been issued by America’s European allies. Ultimately, statements were issued by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley but not by the White House.

The Black Sea’s absence in Mr. Trump’s talks with the Turkish leader coupled with the initial cancellation of the freedom of navigation operation, the initially meek US response to the Strait of Kerch incident, and the fallout of the impeachment inquiry do little to inspire confidence in US policy in key Black Sea countries that include not only Turkey, Ukraine and Georgia, a strategic gateway to Central Asia, but also NATO members Bulgaria and Romania.

In Georgia, protesters gathered this week outside of parliament after lawmakers failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would have introduced a proportional election system in advance of elections scheduled for next year.

The amendment was one demand of protesters that have taken to the streets in Georgia since June in demonstrations that at times included anti-Russian slogans.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russia has since recognized the self-declared independence of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Some 1500 US troops participated in June in annual joint exercises with the Georgian military that were originally initiated to prepare Georgian units for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The absence of the Black Sea in Mr. Trump’s talks with Mr. Erdogan raises the spectre that the region could become a victim of the partisan divide in Washington and/or Mr. Trump’s political priorities.

The Republican-dominated US Senate has yet to consider a bipartisan Georgia Support Act that was last month passed by the House of Representatives. The act would significantly strengthen US defense, economic, and cyber security ties with Georgia.

A Chinese delegation that included representatives of several Chinese-led business associations as well as mobile operator China Unicom visited the breakaway republic of Abkhazia this week to discuss the creation of a special trade zone to manufacture cell phones as well as electric cars.

The Black Sea is one region where the United States cannot afford to sow doubt. The damage, however, may already have been done.

Warned Black Sea security scholar Iulia-Sabina Joja in a recent study: “The region is (already) inhospitable for Western countries as they struggle to provide security… The primary cause of this insecurity is the Russian Federation… Today, Russia uses its enhanced Black Sea capabilities not only to destabilize the region militarily, politically, and economically, but also to move borders, acquire territory, and project power into the Mediterranean.”

Ms. Joja went on to suggest that “a common threat assessment of NATO members and partners is the key to a stable Black Sea. Only by exploring common ground and working towards shared deterrence can they enhance regional security.”

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Eastern Europe

The Black Sea of Economic Cooperation

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Since the Ukraine crisis of 2014 the security situation in the Black Sea region has significantly deteriorated. The annexation of Crimea by Russia as well as the latter’s military moves around the Kerch Strait and in the Azov Sea destabilized the shaky status quo which had been in place since the end of the Cold War.

To back up the current state of affairs in the Black Sea, many an analysis as well as entire books dedicated to the Ukraine crisis mention various Russian-Turkish wars of 18th-19th centuries, underlying the notion that the Black Sea has always been a space of competition and intermittent confrontation among several powers.

Wars indeed were waged and at least two powers were always competing with each other for influence across the sea. This narrative, however, portrays the Black Sea as a sea of insecurity. In reality, though, seen from a centuries-wide perspective, wars between Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea lasted for a small fraction of time in comparison with the periods of peace in the 18th-19th centuries.

Moreover, the Black Sea, though always surrounded by rival powers, was nevertheless a space of economic exchange. Trade flourished, which contributed to close contacts between coastal states. Take, for example, the period of Greek colonization in the 8th c. BC. Colonies in what is nowadays western Georgia and in the Crimean Peninsula enabled the exchange of goods in the region. During the Roman and Byzantine periods (up to the 7th-8th cc. AD, the coastline of modern western Georgia was closely integrated with great cities in Asia Minor and Crimea.

Under the unified Georgian monarchy (late 10th-15th cc.), despite patchy information in historical sources, there was a wide range of economic activity which connected western Georgia to Byzantium, Crimea and later to the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, this period saw such a large economic interconnection that Georgian traders even visited Constantinople, Thessaloniki and from the late 13th c. onwards, were in close contact with Italian merchants who operated ships and had colonies in Crimea and in Georgian cities – Sokhumi, Poti and Batumi.

Even the period of great empires from the early 18th c. around the Black Sea cannot be considered solely as a time of continuous confrontation. In fact, the Black Sea served as a good merging point for connecting different economic systems represented by Russia and the Muslim world (namely the Ottoman Empire). By the early 20th century, just before the outbreak of World War I, there was much economic activity seeing Russia sending most of its coal and grain through the Bosporus and Dardanelles to different parts of the world. Georgia, too, was connected to the rest of the world by the early 20th century when Batumi operated as a main conduit.

Surprisingly the Soviet period too can be characterized as a period of economic cooperation. Ukraine, Georgia and Russia’s ports transported oil, coal and other natural resources through the straits to the Mediterranean.

Thus, despite the wars we know in history, there have been even longer periods of much deeper economic cooperation which the countries (or empires) around the Black Sea have enjoyed over several centuries.

Back to the current deterioration of the security situation in the Black Sea, it could potentially diminish overall economic activity as the flow of foreign investment may be curbed or diverted elsewhere. In a way, the geopolitical situation in the Black Sea today is more chaotic and unpredictable than it was in the 19th century. A certain order was still in place when the Russian and Ottoman Empires fought each other, whereas in 2019 there is much unpredictability in Russian and NATO behavior. Nevertheless, it is still possible to say that economic cooperation among the countries living around the Black Sea will continue. The sea will again play a role not of a divisive, but rather a unifying character.

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