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Armenia: Yerevan Courts Unlikely New Security Partners -- The U.S. And Iran

The United States and Armenia have fleshed out plans to forge closer military ties -- another manifestation of Washington's growing involvement in the South Caucasus and Yerevan's drive to expand its circle of strategic partners. Armenia, taking note of recent geopolitical changes in the region, is increasingly seeking new security arrangements that its leaders say will "complement" its military alliance with Russia. But as RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, West is not the only direction in which the country is looking.

Yerevan, 29 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For small countries seeking to expand military cooperation with the United States, it seems the last thing they should also be doing is seeking to establish similar ties with Iran, a nation branded by the U.S. as part of a global "axis of evil."

Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian defied this conventional wisdom earlier this month, however, when he met with his U.S. and Iranian counterparts within a matter of two weeks. Sarkisian assured both men that Armenia wants to have "friendly" relations with their nations in all areas, including defense.

Never mind that Washington and Tehran regard one another as anything but friends, and that the latter risks becoming another target in the U.S. antiterrorism campaign. But neither appears particularly unhappy with the Caucasus state's efforts to deepen its generally good rapport with the other -- an approach that Armenian leaders describe as "complementary foreign policy."

This policy amounted to trying to combine heavy reliance on Russia with close political and economic ties with the West. Armenia seems to have decided to upgrade those "complementary" relations now that Russia is losing ground to the West in the struggle for regional influence.

Sarkisian's four-day official visit to the U.S. underscored this policy. He met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and other top officials. The two sides reached agreement on the use of $4.3 million in military assistance to Armenia approved by the U.S. Congress late last year.

A joint statement said the U.S. government will train Armenian military personnel and modernize the communications facilities of Armenia's armed forces. The military training will also encompass an Armenian peacekeeping battalion created last year with the help of NATO-member Greece.

Speaking to reporters in Yerevan this week, Sarkisian said, "I believe that the visit was quite successful. In fact, our meetings in the United States marked the beginning of Armenian-American military consultations."

He said a detailed plan of action will be signed between the U.S. Unified Command in Europe and the Armenian military later this year.

The American military aid is meant to address Armenian concerns over the suspension of decade-old U.S. economic sanctions against Azerbaijan. It is also part of a broader effort to reward the three south Caucasus states for their support in the ongoing U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.

Sarkisian's visit followed the official opening of a U.S-funded demining center near Yerevan. The center was hailed by the two governments as the first concrete result of bilateral military cooperation. U.S. instructors will train and equip Armenian personnel to demine civilian areas along the border with Azerbaijan, areas still littered with mines nearly eight years after the end of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The U.S. military attache in Armenia, Lieutenant-Colonel Eric von Tersch, said, "This is a good start. This is a kind of model of the way we will work with the Armenians. They'll do part, we'll do part."

Armenian officials are keen to stress that the unfolding military partnership with the U.S. is no substitute for their military alliance with Russia. The presence of Russian troops, mainly deployed along the Turkish border, has been a crucial element of Armenia's national security doctrine since independence. Sarkisian said, "I want to make it clear that the United States does not aim to replace Russian troops or Russia's role in Armenia. It just aims to complement them. So it would be wrong to argue that if there are Russian troops in Armenia, there should be no U.S. presence."

Armenia's relations with NATO are also on the rise, with Yerevan stepping up its participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. A small detachment of the Armenian army for the first time will join NATO-led military exercises in neighboring Georgia in June. Similar war games are scheduled to take place in Armenia next year.

Just two weeks before Sarkisian's departure to Washington, Armenia and Iran announced the start of their bilateral military cooperation. The announcement came at the end of Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani's official visit to Yerevan. Shamkhani said Tehran wants to extend "special relations" with its sole Christian neighbor into the area of defense.

But it remains unclear what concrete forms the Armenian-Iranian defense ties may take. The Armenian defense chief said this week that he did not discuss Yerevan's relations with Iran with U.S. officials in Washington.

Most local observers take the view that Armenia's ongoing search for new strategic partners will not entail radical changes -- at least on the military front -- in President Robert Kocharian's policy toward Russia. The newspaper "Hayots Ashkhar," which is close to Kocharian and Sarkisian, supported this view in a commentary on 26 March.

Indeed, Armenia and Russia in January sealed a defense agreement that paves the way for the formation of a joint military contingent tasked with ensuring their common security in the region. The joint force will, among other things, bolster the already integrated air-defense systems of the two states.