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Iraq: Pro-Russian Armenia May Benefit Most From U.S.-Led War

Of the three former Soviet republics of the South Caucasus, only Armenia is not part of the 49-country "coalition of the willing" that has fallen in behind the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq. Neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia have, to varying degrees, voiced their support for the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Yet, paradoxically, it is Armenia that could emerge as the region's main beneficiary of the U.S. war effort.

Yerevan, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia's reluctance to endorse the U.S. push for regime change in Baghdad is hardly based on the kind of pragmatic calculations that might explain Russian or French opposition to the war. For if there is any political and economic price to be paid for the ongoing military action, it is likely to be shared by Armenia's two most bitter foes: Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Pro-Western analysts in Yerevan say a U.S.-administered Iraq will offer Armenia a number of far-reaching geopolitical benefits at the expense of its traditional rivals. Not the least of them is the expected sharp fall in the price of oil, which accounts for 90 percent of Azerbaijan's net exports. That could weaken Baku's position in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia's No. 1 security challenge.

Besides, local analysts argue, Yerevan could capitalize on the deepening rift between the United States and Turkey over Ankara's refusal to allow U.S. troops to invade Iraq from its territory.

Aghasi Yenokian is the director of the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, an independent Yerevan-based think tank. He sees the following postwar scenario: "Interest in Azerbaijan's oil resources will decline, and perhaps we will be able to restore, to a certain extent, parity in the West's attitude toward Armenia and Azerbaijan. That attitude is now tilted in Azerbaijan's favor."

Indeed, Azerbaijan's substantial Caspian oil reserves have been a key driving force behind Western, and especially U.S., involvement in the region. Armenians have long suspected the United States of sacrificing their interests for the sake of a planned pipeline to ship Azerbaijani oil to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. The unresolved Karabakh dispute is a major hindrance to the implementation of the $3 billion project strongly backed by Washington, despite misgivings voiced by oil multinationals.

The eventual removal of United Nations curbs on exports of the much cheaper Iraqi oil will likely render the ambitious project even less economical. A plunge in oil prices would hit Azerbaijan hard -- a welcome development for resource-poor Armenia. Oil revenues are critical to Baku's ability to invest in strengthening its armed forces.

So far, the Armenian leadership has not publicly commented on these and other possible ramifications of the war being waged only a few hundred kilometers away from Armenia's borders. It has opposed any U.S. military action without a UN mandate throughout the Iraqi crisis.

And, although official Yerevan has stopped short of explicitly criticizing the U.S. war effort, its position on the issue contrasts with the stance taken by Azerbaijan and especially Georgia. The latter has offered the Americans the use of its military facilities for missions in Iraq. Unlike its two Caucasus neighbors, Armenia maintains close ties with Russia, a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, and often looks toward Moscow when taking important foreign-policy decisions.

Pro-Western politicians who are in opposition to President Robert Kocharian resent this line. One of them, former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian, said: "Russia is a foreign country, no matter how friendly it is and no matter how good our relations have traditionally been. We must be guided only by the interests of the Republic of Armenia."

Arzumanian also believes Armenia should be keenly interested in the success of the U.S.-British efforts to topple the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein because that could reduce Turkey's geopolitical significance for the United States. "Armenia will definitely get more room to maneuver. A decline in Turkish influence in the region will be accompanied by a decline in the significance of Azerbaijan's resources. This will be very beneficial for Armenia if we pursue the right policy," Arzumanian said.

Turkey, which has no diplomatic relations with Armenia, shares close ethnic and cultural links with Azerbaijan and has lent its full support to Baku in the Karabakh conflict. It has also been a crucial U.S. ally, the reason why U.S. policy in the region is often perceived as pro-Turkish by Armenian political circles. They should now see an opportunity to cash in on what many analysts believe is the most serious crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations in decades.

Ankara's refusal to allow the U.S. military to open a northern front against Iraq, seen as prolonging the war, has incensed even those among the United States' conservative political circles who have close ties with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and are traditionally sympathetic toward Turkey.

Ariel Cohen of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation wrote recently that the United States may well stop "seeing Turkey as a special strategic partner, or even as a reliable ally," while a prominent "New York Times" columnist, William Safire, called the Turkish stance a "betrayal."

Andranik Migranian, a well-known Armenian-born political scientist based in Moscow, said: "The Turkish side has shown that it is not a reliable partner for the United States because of its domestic problems. This creates new opportunities for both U.S.-Armenian and Armenian-European relations."

Opportunities must have also been sensed by the influential ethnic Armenian community in the United States. For many years, it has tried, unsuccessfully, to get the U.S. Congress to recognize the 1915 slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide. The most recent such attempt failed in 2000 after the White House warned lawmakers against angering Ankara. The Bush administration, according to Cohen, may not step in when the issue comes up on Capitol Hill next time.

Still, some leading Armenian-Americans urge their compatriots to exercise caution in trying to reap benefits from the Turkish-American friction. As one longtime political observer in Washington put it: "One should never underestimate the value of the personal, political, business, and military ties that give Turkey its standing in the U.S. Armenian opportunism at this point could be seen as further damaging the traditionally strong alliance between the U.S. and Turkey. This is a fluid and unpredictable time, not one for piling on or reckless gambles."