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Armenia: Westward Foreign-Policy Shift Brings Unease In Iran

Iran is showing signs of discontent with an apparent pro-Western tilt in the foreign policy of Armenia, its sole Christian neighbor and closest ally in the South Caucasus. A senior Iranian diplomat has voiced a thinly veiled criticism of the Armenian government, hinting that Yerevan should step up security ties with Tehran instead of courting the United States and other Western powers. The public remarks were unprecedented and, according to some Armenian officials, run counter to international norms of diplomatic conduct.

Yerevan, 2 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The reputation of the Iranian ambassador to Armenia, Mohammad Farhad Koleini, as a cautious and reticent diplomat lies in tatters after his public questioning of the Armenian leadership's current national-security strategy.

Openly challenging Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Koleini indicated that Armenia lacks the resources and international clout to continue to pursue its "complementary" foreign policy of maintaining good relations with the West, Russia, Iran, and other major powers.

Although the envoy stressed that he was expressing his personal opinion, a foreign diplomat taking issue with the foreign minister of his host country, in public, is quite extraordinary and could have important implications for Armenian-Iranian relations.

Koleini made his remarks on 28 September after Oskanian laid out Armenia's foreign-policy priorities to more than 100 activists for an Armenian pro-government party. The gathering was also attended by foreign diplomats and journalists.

Using figurative and, at times, ambiguous wording during a question-and-answer session, Koleini said: "Complementarism requires both software and hardware instruments. Armenia's software capacity is good. But in terms of the hardware, there are problems."

He then asked Oskanian, "Don't you think that it would be more correct to describe [your policy] as a multilateral dialogue, rather than use the word 'complementarism'?"

Koleini's critical remarks came after Oskanian had reaffirmed his government's intention to boost security ties with the United States and other Western powers in view of the new geopolitical situation in the world. Citing the U.S. military presence in neighboring Georgia and Central Asia, Oskanian said Armenia is adjusting its foreign policy to the dramatic global changes that have taken place since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. He mentioned Armenia's support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, revealing that U.S. military planes bound for Central Asia have carried out more than 600 flights over Armenian territory over the past year.

Ambassador Koleini appeared to indicate his country's unease over deepening U.S.-Armenian ties when he noted that "even great powers must not have illusory approaches to their capabilities." He rebuked the Armenian government for pursuing what he termed "globalist security."

In an interview with RFE/RL today, one Armenian government official dealing with foreign affairs called Koleini's remarks a "serious breach of diplomatic ethics," saying, "I think that we have a strong case for complaining to the Iranian Foreign Ministry."

However, Oskanian's reaction to Koleini's unusually frank remarks was rather appeasing. He assured the Iranian envoy that Armenia would never take any steps that could harm Iran. "We will not do anything in the region infringing on the interests of neighboring countries that are strategically important to us," Oskanian said.

To drive home his point, Oskanian noted that Yerevan remains strongly opposed to the controversial idea of a land swap with Azerbaijan as part of a resolution to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The deal -- suggested by Western mediators in the past -- would leave Armenia without a common border with Iran. Oskanian also said Yerevan will "take into account" Iranian interests when it comes to selecting countries that will commit troops for a future Karabakh peacekeeping force.

Like neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia opened its airspace to the U.S. military shortly after 11 September. The United States allocated $4.3 million in military assistance to Armenia shortly afterward. A similar amount of military aid is expected to be earmarked by Congress for the next financial year.

The U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Ordway, said late last month that the two sides will soon "accelerate" the implementation of their joint defense projects.

Incidentally, Ordway was the first U.S. official to publicly voice reservations about Armenia's generally cordial rapport with Iran, a country that U.S. President George W. Bush says forms an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea.

In an interview with RFE/RL last May, Ordway said Washington expects Yerevan's support in countering what it considers to be Tehran's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and to undermine the Middle East peace process.

In a dramatic move several days later, the U.S. State Department imposed sanctions against an Armenian biochemical company accused of selling sensitive equipment to Iran. Armenian government officials were quick to try to address U.S. concerns and claim to have tightened export controls on all border crossings since then.

Yerevan is now thought to be exercising more caution in its dealings with Iran, something that might be causing jitters in Tehran. In an apparent reference to Bush's speech at the UN General Assembly on 12 September, the Iranian ambassador noted that great powers often retract accusations directed at smaller states and that their military presence in various parts of the world is not perpetual.

In his speech, Bush made no mention of his administration's earlier charges leveled against the Islamic Republic.

Despite the latest foreign-policy shift, Armenia is likely to maintain close political and economic ties with Iran, viewing the latter as a major counterweight to its traditional foes Turkey and Azerbaijan. The two countries have recently stepped up their cooperation in the energy sector. Armenia is expected to start large-scale exports of electricity to Iran soon.

As one Armenian official, who asked not to be identified, put it: "The Iranians are always unhappy with something. That's the style of their diplomacy."