Armenia Caught in the Pincer of Iran and Georgia

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Following the Velvet Revolution, Armenia has been consolidating its domestic stability, improving its economy and recalibrating its foreign policy. But Armenia’s prosperity is at the mercy of its interactions with the outside world.

As a consequence of the blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s choices have become dramatically restricted. In fact, only two neighbors remain which allow Armenia to communicate and trade with the rest of the world: Iran and Georgia.

Ironically, both countries are gripped by internal turmoil and instability concurrently and Armenia is caught in the pincer of those events.

Certainly, there have been no hostile actions by those countries against Armenia, but their internal problems will spill over to affect Armenia.

The riots in Iran are caused by bread-and-butter issues, triggered by the sudden increase in the price of gasoline by 50 percent. In Georgia, the problems stem from the more abstract issues of democracy and electoral reforms. At this time, the causes are not as important from the Armenian perspective as the consequences of the riots in the two countries.

Destabilization in Iran not only impacts Armenia but will have a tectonic effect throughout the region.

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In light of the gathering storm, the reinforcement of the Russian military base in Armenia has become a reassuring factor not only for Armenia but also for Iran and Azerbaijan.

The riots in Georgia broke out because the ruling Georgian Dream Party had promised to introduce constitutional reforms to allow opposition parties to have a chance for equitable representation in the parliament. The current constitution heavily favors the ruling party. However, the parliament refused to pass the promised legislation, triggering the current crisis, which the former Speaker of the Parliament Nino Burjanadze calls “destabilizing.” Thousands have taken to the streets to demonstrate, chanting slogans like “Georgia is facing the end of a dream.”

Meanwhile, 12 members of the ruling party have resigned. One of them, Tamar Chugoshvili, who had served as first deputy speaker of the parliament, stated: “For months, my role was to convince everyone that those amendments would pass, but because we have not delivered on this commitment, I decided to take the responsibility for the failure.”

Unlike the Armenian situation, the Georgian church and in particular its patriarch, Ilia II, have great political influence and helped to bring to power the current administration. At this time, it seems that the church is sympathizing with the disgruntled parties.

The current crisis will certainly hamper Armenia’s foreign trade and particularly its trade with Russia. Recently, Georgian-Armenian relations were improving, partly because of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s friendly gestures, but also because of Azerbaijan’s hostile actions against Georgia, including a territorial dispute, and Turkey’s heavy penetration and control of the Georgian seaport of Batumi.

Incidentally, the Treaty of Kars of 1921 had given Turkey free access to Batumi port (in Ajaria) at no charge. That particular proviso was not used by Turkey during the Soviet period. But today, Turkey is in Ajaria with a heavy hand, controlling the economy of the region, to the chagrin of all Georgians.

The crisis in Georgia will affect Azerbaijan, because all pipelines which carry Azeri oil traverse Georgia.

The riots in Iran erupted when the government increased gasoline prices. But that was the straw that broke the camel’s back; the imposition of strict religious rules on the citizens, compounded by continued economic hardships as a result of US-imposed sanctions, plus Iran’s regional political ambitions were all factors, leading to the current public uprising.

Of course, all of the above needed a spark, which came through the Internet. In today’s world, most governments do not fully control their populations, as major forces are able to undermine that control through the Internet, which can be a blessing in many ways but also a powerful weapon in cyberwar. We have seen the scenario repeated in many countries. But even the major powers blame each other for weaponizing the Internet and influencing election results.

The riots began on November 16 and swept through the country, with Amnesty International estimating that  106 people were killed by the government forces during the crackdown.

Interference by foreign entities to destabilize the country is designed to feed on existing grievances, brought about through economic hardships.

In Iran’s case, the ethnic fault lines come in very handy as well, as Iran’s population of 80 million includes 20 million Azeris. For a long time, the partition of Iran — breaking off the north — has been part of US strategic plans.

The destabilization plans begin with fanning discontent which is already brewing among the population. When the government retaliates, each victim is a “blessing” for the powers interested in regime change. It is no surprise that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has appealed to Iranians to send pictures, videos and other documents to be used against the government. Jon Gambrell, at the AP, reports that “the acting commander fo the Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Ali Fadavi, repeated the allegation that America was behind the protests, without offering any evidence to support his claim.”

One would wonder what evidence one needs after the public obsession of the Trump administration to punish Iran.

And since the Internet has been weaponized, the Iranian government shut down the Internet on November 16.

“Why did [the Americans] get angry after we cut off the Internet?” asked Favadi, adding, “because the Internet is the channel through which the Americans wanted to perform their evil and vicious acts.”

Currently, there is a lull in the protests after the arrest of more than 2,000 demonstrators.

Since President Trump has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal unilaterally, Tehran has resumed its race toward nuclear weapons, further aggravating the situation.

Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Therefore, today’s crisis may be considered a prelude to a more violent confrontation.

From the Armenian perspective, losing Iran as an outlet pales compared to the larger problems engulfing the entire region should that happen.

Aharon Vardanyan, an expert on Iranian studies in Yerevan, warns of potential catastrophe south of Arax River should the government of Iran lose control of the area, which is populated by Turks and Azeris.

“The Turkish and Azerbaijani propaganda machine has been very active using cultural factors, as well as people-to-people diplomacy along with other covert operations. Today, the Artsakh-Iran border is considered the safest area. Should the scenario change, it will become the most dangerous area.”

In view of Iran’s current problems, some circles in Azerbaijan are gleefully preparing for a change of fortunes. A group named Pan-Azeri Movement has already planned a symposium to study the topic, titled “Iran’s Future and the Turks.”

The speakers will focus on the situation in southern Azerbaijan, developments in Iran and their impact on “our compatriots.” This group considers northern Iran to be southern Azerbaijan and the citizens there as “our compatriots.”

Unbeknownst to the respective governments in Tbilisi and Tehran, which are engulfed in their internal problems, these issues in their turn have caught Armenia in their pincers.

 

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