Armenia Hostage to Iran-America Standoff

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Armenia had hardly regained domestic peace as a result of the Velvet Revolution, when urgent foreign policy issues began amassing on its borders. Constant threat of war with Azerbaijan is already a permanent problem against which Armenia has taken the appropriate measures, and it has survived such threats over the last quarter century.

As the new government puts its house in order, much more pressing issues will take up its attention. Strained relations with Moscow have already resulted in an undeclared blockade of Armenia’s agricultural products. Much of Armenia’s agricultural trade has been with Russia and indirect pressures on that trade have always come from Georgia, which is lined up with Armenia’s enemies in choking the landlocked country. Armenia’s precarious trade with Russia transits through Georgian territory, and more often than not the Georgian government closes down the main route at Upper Lars to block or slow down the movements of people and goods. This time around that passage is blocked by the Russian side, keeping trucks stranded for days on end. Most of the time these trucks return to Armenia empty, after unloading the rotten agricultural products at the Russian border. This is, of course a subtle message from Moscow after the stern warning by its foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

But a more imminent and urgent problem has been arising on the Iranian border, where Iran has proven to be a reliable trading partner for Armenia. Although the threat is not directed to Armenia per se, its impact may turn to be more devasting; that threat is presented in the form of economic sanctions that the Trump administration intends to impose on Iran. Of course, the last thing on Mr. Trump’s mind could be how his sanctions may affect Armenia.

Thus, Armenia becomes an unwilling participant in an international game and a hostage to the US-Iran stand-off.

The recent change in the US policy has short term and long term goals. The short term goal pursued by neocons is to reduce Iran to the level of Iraq, Syria and Libya; in other words, not to have any regime that can challenge or undermine Israel’s  hegemony in the region. But the long- term goal is a tectonic shift with global implications. In today’s unipolar world, Europe is highly dependent on America and that is to Washington’s liking. But the consideration that the ambitious rise of China, extending its economic silk route to Europe and bypassing Russia, may potentially help lead to the emergence of a bi-polar or tri-polar world down the road has alarmed US policy planners. On that political chessboard, India is another contender for European trade.

The Caucasus region is on the path of these two rising Asian powers, which the US wishes to use one against the other to forestall or slow down the reconfiguration of the dreaded multipolar political world. Therefore, in preparation for a US policy extending over the next full century, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is intending to reshape the corridor from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea, and Armenia is on the way.

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Mr. Trump may not be involved in the intricacy and complexities of such policies, but he remains the front man who has triggered the current crisis.

The Iran deal, which had taken almost a decade to negotiate and ratify under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, called for Iran to refrain from researching and producing nuclear weapons in return for a commitment by the US to lift some sanctions. Five security council member nations and Germany are signatories of the deal. In fulfillment of his campaign promise to dismantle the deal – which is President Obama’s legacy – Mr. Trump withdrew on May 8, 2018 from the agreement officially known as JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).  Mr. Trump has already set a deadline for the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran.  All the other signatories have pledged to honor the deal which was working as expected per International Atomic Energy reports.

Now, Mr. Trump is demanding to renegotiate the deal and asking more commitments of Iran. According to Mr. Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton who, by the way, is not the most refined diplomat, Iran has to cease producing long range missiles, withdraw from the Syrian battlefield, and abstain from state terrorism; this of course, in a region where Iran is not the only country sponsoring state terrorism.  In a way, whatever the US was not able to achieve in the Syrian battlefield it wishes to get through this new deal.

The reaction to this unilateral action was unanimous. The EU top diplomat, Natali Tocci, an aide to EU foreign policy Chief Federica Mogherini, informed the BBC that the European firms that stop doing business with Iran because of US-imposed sanctions could in turn be sanctioned by the European Union.

On the other hand, China’s response was reported by Reuters: “China has consistently opposed unilateral sanctions and long armed jurisdiction,” said China’s foreign ministry, adding “China’s commercial cooperation with Iran is open and transparent, reasonable, fair and lawful, not violating any United Nation’s Security Council resolutions.” By the way China is the major oil importer from Iran.

The Russian foreign ministry website published the following statement: “[We are] deeply disappointed by US steps to reimpose its national sanctions against Iran. We will do everything necessary in the interest of preserving and fully implementing the deal.”

Thus, the international reaction to US action seems to be unanimous. However, Sam Meredith writing in an International Energy Agency essay says: “While several global powers including the European Union, China and India have spoken out against the scheduled sanctions, many are expected to bow to American pressure.” They have conflicting interests and they adhere to different policies.

Where does Armenia stand in all these dramatic developments? The answer is in an article which appeared in Eurasia Future, signed by Andrew Korybko, who  writes under the heading  “Pompeo Might Have Pulled the Plug on Armenian-Iranian Trade“ that “New Secretary of State and former CIA Chief Mike Pompeo issued what amounts to a declaration of Hybrid War against Iran while speaking at the neoconservative Heritago Foundation think tank about the Trump administration’s so-called ‘Plan B’ for dealing with the country after the US earlier withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal…relatedly, however, this will inevitably have an impact on Armenia as well, which is a tiny, impoverished and landlocked South Caucasian failing state which just experienced a pro-western color revolution.”

It is interesting that whatever is termed as a Velvet Revolution in Armenia is perceived in the West as a “color revolution” similar to those in Ukraine and Georgia, raising red flags in Moscow.

The article further defining Armenian’s situation states that the sanctions also nullify whatever Armenia could have benefitted by concluding a “Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement” (CEPA) with EU.

The Hybrid War against Iran seems to be part of grander policy which will continue in the foreseeable future. “The US is already planning for a 100-year-long military-strategic partnership with India that significantly includes a crucial naval component intended to make the South Asian state a ‘counterbalance’ to China,” concludes the article. This particular reference is about Persian Gulf-Black Sea Corridor rivalry, within which Armenia is struggling to survive.

Armenia and Iran have been reliable partners but their trade had not yet attained full capacity, pending relaxation of sanctions.  A new Free Trading Zone had opened recently in the Meghri region in Armenia’s south to stir up business activity between the two countries.

Hopefully Armenia’s new government will take note of the developing complex situation to be able to navigate safely to the future.

Mr. Trump’s unpredictability has demonstrated certain patterns which renders him less unpredictable. Indeed, he was raging “fire and fury” against the North Korean regime before he met the country’s head, Kim Jong-un whom he found to be “very reasonable.” Similarly, he embraced President Putin of Russia in Helsinki, almost absolving him of all the accusations his administration was laying against the Kremlin. Now it is Iran’s turn. Mr. Trump said on July 30 that he is ready to meet his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, any time the Iranians want. He added “It’s good for the country, good for them, good for us and good for the world. No preconditions. If they want to meet, I will meet.”

Although Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Javad Zarif has described US policy as “erratic,” his country has no choice given the comparative powers of the two sides.  All the countries which have rejected the US action will certainly encourage Iran to re-negotiate and to try to make the best out of the opportunity.

Several US congressmen in the Armenian Caucus had been pushing for a Trump/Pashinian meeting. This may be a good opportunity for Yerevan to serve as a forum for that meeting, which may host also the presidents of the US and Iran.  That may be a hopeful exit from the situation.

The alternative may be a dangerous chaos.

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