Christian Armenia and Islamic Iran:
An Unusual Partnership Explained
By: Harout Harry SEMERDJIAN
(Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Oxford)
While the West has recently tightened its sanctions against Iran, its only Christian neighbour has taken a different approach towards the Islamic Republic. Political constraints and lack of options have coerced landlocked Armenia to adopt a policy dissimilar to the West’s for one basic reason—survival.
Armenia is located in the South Caucasus—one of the most volatile regions in the world, where East meets West and North meets South. It lies at the crossroads of Islam and Christianity. This is where NATO and the USSR once drew their boundary, but where war and history have maintained closed borders even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This is also where expansive oil and gas pipelines traverse, supplying Europe with energy resources from the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian Sea.
Of all the countries in the region, geography and history have been the cruelest to Armenia. The country is blockaded by two of its four neighbours—Turkey to the West and Azerbaijan to the East and Southwest—accounting for some eighty percent of the country’s boundaries. Its border with an often unstable Georgia remains open to the North as well as a tiny 22-mile Southern border with Iran—termed as a “lifeline” for the culturally-rich yet resource-poor country of 3 million.
Despite a current cease-fire, Armenia is technically still at war with Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where a de-facto independent republic was proclaimed in 1992 after Armenian forces established control over the territory and several districts surrounding it. As a result, Turkey also severed ties with Armenia and closed its border in solidarity with its ethnic kin, the Azeris. Armenia’s relations with Turkey also remain tense over the 1915 Armenian genocide, when nearly the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, two million people, was wiped out through massacres and deportations. Turkey still denies the genocide despite historical evidence and international pressure to acknowledge the crimes committed by its predecessors.
Given Iran’s historic rivalry with Turkey and Russia for influence in the Caucasus, its strained relations with Azerbaijan over that country’s rejection of an Islamic order, and its international isolation, Iran has recently enhanced its economic, political and cultural relations with Armenia. Additionally, northern Iran is inhabited by over 15 million Azeris (double the population of the Republic of Azerbaijan), driving Iran’s concern of a potential secessionist movement. Wary of this threat, a weak Azerbaijan is in Iran’s best interest and Armenia becomes an important leverage point in this regard. Hence, we observe an unusual international relations predicament in which the interests of an Islamic republic coincide with those of a Christian state at the expense of another Muslim country. In response, leaders of both Iran and Armenia are quick to point out the historic relations between the two countries that span several thousand years, as well as the presence of a substantial Armenian community in Iran numbering 150,000. Two seats in the Iranian Parliament are appointed for Armenian representation and northern Iran, once a part of several Armenian kingdoms, is also home to ancient Armenian monasteries designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites that enjoy national and international protection – in stark contrast to some three thousand Armenian churches in Turkey that fell victim to cultural destruction during and after 1915.
Ultimately, for Armenia, embracing Iran becomes a matter of basic survival, and for Iran, tiny Armenia becomes an outlet for global reconnection and a means to put pressure on Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Armenia has made it clear that this relationship does not come at the expense of its relations with the West or Russia. Russia remains Armenia’s strategic ally and Armenia has very warm and developing relations with the United States and the EU. Large and influential Armenian Diaspora communities, particularly in the United States and France, become an important bridge between their ancestral and adopted homelands and act as catalysts for Westernization. Over the years, Armenia has espoused a policy of European orientation and integration and hopes to become an EU member in time. As a means of engaging regional and global powers without having to “pick and choose” alliances, Armenia has carefully crafted a policy of “complementarity” to survive and navigate difficult geopolitical terrain.
Last year marked the apex of Iranian-Armenian relations when the two countries embarked on important economic projects, including the construction of a hydro-electric plant on their shared border—a welcome development for energy-hungry Armenia. There are talks now of constructing an ambitious railway system and an oil pipeline between the two countries. Both projects could eventually be extended to Europe through Georgia, which will help alleviate Armenia’s isolation in the region. American tolerance of these growing ties still remains to be seen. Thus far, the United States has been cautious but largely understanding; however this could change in the future.
To assist Armenia in expanding its options in the region, the Obama administration must put pressure on Turkey to open its border with Armenia immediately and without preconditions. This would ensure Armenia’s access to Europe and beyond through Turkish territory. The United States should also enhance its efforts in bringing forth a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict peacefully and resolutely. Furthermore, the United States should assist Armenian integration in regional economic and transportation projects and to energize U.S.-Armenia economic relations via a bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. The United States will thus help Armenia reduce its dependence on Iran by ensuring the country’s integration with the West. Armenia and its people want no less and need American and European assistance to achieve this objective. Otherwise, Armenia will have no choice but to continue looking to Iran.
Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
March 7th, 2013