Iran’s human rights issues, its greater involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in regional politics, and its controversial nuclear program have put the country on the most debated list in various foreign policy forums and media throughout the world.
Trade and economic sanctions have been applied to the Islamic Republic for decades from western governments, particularly the United States and the European Union. And negotiations to solve the Iranian nuclear problem by peaceful means and to lift the sanctions have failed several times.
A new round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of UN Security Council and Germany) kicked off in Istanbul this week, with Turkish mediation. The process didn’t look promising from the outset, however. Prior to the negotiations, a spokesperson of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that Iran’s nuclear program must be discussed separately from the trilateral agreement signed last May—and not welcomed by the U.S. and European Union—on uranium exchange between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil.
Despite Iran’s challenges to the world’s leading political and economic superpowers, its relations with Armenia appear to be very close. Plans to boost cooperation are being discussed and bilateral agreements have been signed between both sides during regular visits by high-level government officials.
Successive Armenian governments have avoided any criticism of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, underscoring the Islamic Republic’s perceived importance for the security and economic development of the landlocked country. Unresolved bitter disputes with two other Muslim neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey, have made Iran one of Armenia’s two transport conduits to the outside world.
According to Civilitas Foundation analyst Tatul Hakobyan, Armenia-Iran relations were very cordial during the last two decades. “Iran has been Armenia’s friend in its worst moments, and Armenia shouldn’t forget that fact,” said Hakobyan. “During the period from 1992-94, the Islamic Republic was a window of hope connecting us with the world.”
Since its independence from the Soviet Union, Armenia has established good relations with the United States, European Union, and other Euro-Atlantic organizations, but hasn’t become a tool against Iran. “I think that Tehran appreciates this fact,” said Hakobyan.
During an official visit to Tehran in mid-September, Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian said that Armenia is “closely monitoring” the situation and hopes for “a mutually acceptable solution” to Iran’s nuclear program.
RFE/RL reported that Armenian President Serge Sarkisian, while visiting Germany last June, publicly stated that the nuclear crisis will not be resolved unless the West addresses “Iran’s sense of being in danger.” He also held up Armenian-Iranian projects as a model for regional cooperation.
According to the National Statistical Service of Armenia, the scale of that trade totaled $97.6 million and accounted for only 4.5 percent of Armenia’s overall external exchange in the first half of this year. This rate stands modestly in comparison with the volume of Armenia’s trade with the United States, for example, which is slightly higher.
However, Tehran presented a draft Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to Yerevan to enhance the two-way transactions in August 2009. In early 2010, after the ninth meeting of the Armenian-Iranian Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation, Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki said the FTA would allow both countries to boost their trade to $500 million. In an interview with Panarmenian.net in September, he said it “would help to elevate our relations to an adequate level.”
Prior to the visit of the Armenian minister of economy, Nerses Yeritsyan, in September, and the visit of Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan in mid-October, Iranian newspapers claimed the FTA would be signed during these visits; however, the Armenian side denied such claims and the agreement has not yet been signed.
Armenia appears to be reluctant about finalizing the free trade deal with Iran because Iran is not prepared to introduce zero customs dues in trading with Armenia, according to a statement by an Armenian government official to the Capital daily newspaper of Yerevan.
Iran is not a member of the World Trade Organization and protects its market by applying extremely high import tariffs, in sharp contrast to Armenia’s liberal trade regime—one of the reasons why Armenian exports to Iran make up only a fraction of bilateral trade. Armenian businessmen have long complained about that disparity, reports RFE/RL.
Nevertheless, during the Armenian foreign minister’s last visit to Tehran, both sides discussed the implementation of agreements previously signed in various sectors, including energy, electricity, trade, and transportation, and the oil industry.
Several joint energy projects are being planned by both countries. Most important is the 140km-long Iran-Armenia Gas Pipeline, which will carry 2.3 billion cubic meters per year from Iran to Armenia once it start to function in 2011. Other projects include the construction of two hydro-electric plants on the Arax River, which marks the Armenian-Iranian border, and of a third high-voltage transmission line linking their power grids and dams; the improvement of infrastructure; the development of railways; and the construction of an oil refinery.
According to Tatul Hakobyan, Armenia doesn’t have a huge dependence on Iran. “The reason is that Armenia is greatly dependant on Russia, be it economically, politically, militarily, and most of all psychologically,” said Hakobyan. “But as a neighboring country, which is connected with Armenia by a gas pipeline, a few electricity plants, and other energetic-communication projects, Iran is very important for Armenia.”
In a recent analysis, the director of the Norvanak Research Complex, Gagik Haroutyunyan, said that Iran is seeking to counterbalance Russia and Turkey in the South Caucasus to get its “share” in the ongoing political process. Evidence thereof is the visa-free travel agreement with Georgia similar to that established with Azerbaijan earlier. (Azerbaijan, however, hasn’t yet applied the agreement on its side.)
Iran has repeatedly expressed its readiness to act as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan in resolving the Karabagh conflict. During an official visit to Baku last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stressed that his country is ready to support the peaceful resolution of the Karabagh conflict. “We are ready to make our utmost contribution to a quick resolution of the Karabagh problem by means of negotiations, on a just basis and within the framework of international law,” said Ahmadinejad in an interview to Lider TV. “The Nagorno-Karabagh conflict can be solved if the external pressure on the South Caucasus region is stopped,” he added.
According to the Regnum news agency, Ahmadinejad skirted Azerbaijani journalists’ persistent questions about Iran’s close political and economic ties with Christian Armenia and its compatibility with Muslim solidarity championed by Tehran. “I’m not going to say what you want to hear from me,” the Russian news agency quoted him as saying.
Armenian officials have always praised Iran for its role in resolving the Karabagh dispute, saying it has taken a “balanced” stance. “Iran supports Azerbaijan in its statements regarding the Karabagh conflict, but de facto it remains neutral, or pro-Armenian neutral, if it’s right to put it like this,” said Tatul Hakobyan, who is also the author of Green and Black Artsakh Diary. “During the process of finding a resolution for the Karabagh conflict, Iran’s views must be considered too. But, while powerful mediators like Russia, the EU, and the United States are involved in this process, it is unlikely they would share the tempting cake of mediators with Iran. Nevertheless, Iran’s positive neutrality regarding the Karabagh conflict is very important,” Hakobyan added.
Unlike its border with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s short border with Iran is open to traffic. The increasingly common sight of Iranian tourists in Armenia reflects the growing relationship between the two states. Data extrapolated from the National Statistical Service of Armenia shows that only 29,600 Iranian tourists entered Armenia from January to September 2008, while more than 44,000 entered during the same period the following year. Recent statements from the tourism department of the Ministry of Economy indicate that from January to September of this year, 84,000 Iranian tourists chose Armenia for their holidays—nearly double the number of the previous year.
Many Iranian citizens are also favoring Armenia to either establish businesses or for study purposes. Some of them are establishing a permanent residency in the country, buying property and settling their business and family there. For many Iranians, Armenia offers a breath of fresh air, away from the tight control of an ultra-conservative regime.
Earlier this month, a group of Iranians residing in Armenia picketed in front of their country’s embassy to condemn the possible execution of an Iranian woman, Sakina Ashtiani, who is sentenced to death for alleged adultery. A group of Armenian activists organized a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in Yerevan as well.
In late October, Tehran hosted the 17th festival of press and information agencies. The Armenian delegation, represented by reporters from the panarmenian.net agency and Azg newspaper, was attacked by the Azeri delegation after showing a photograph of Artsakh’s symbol in their pavilion. The Iranian organizers were not sympathetic to the Armenian delegation, which in turn boycotted the event and disseminated a condemning statement. However, virtually no Armenia media outlet referred to the incident.
Two years ago, during the public outcry after the Iranian presidential elections, Yerevan also witnessed minor protests and petitions by some journalists and activists. However, Armenian officials preferred to turn a blind eye in this and other such cases; government officials have never released any comments regarding human rights issues in Iran.
According to Tatul Hakobyan, there are two reasons for the official idle attitude. First, Armenia itself is not a great example in democracy and human rights, thus it has no right to teach that to others. Second, in Armenia, most people understand that with two enemies on our borders—Azerbaijan and Turkey—it’s not right to risk relations with Iran.
With its strategic location in the Middle East and Central Eurasia, and its large reserves of petroleum and natural gas, Iran holds an important position in the world economy and in energy security. Iran is a regional power of particular significance for Armenia, which is battling for survival and development in one of the world’s most difficult neighborhoods.
Note: The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Armenia was contacted for questions and opinions on this report. As of publishing, however, it had not responded.