By Emil Danielyan
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured Armenian leaders on Saturday that the impending suspension of decade-long US sanctions against Azerbaijan will enable Washington to broaden military cooperation with Armenia.
Rumsfeld, ending a brief visit to Yerevan as part a two-day tour of the South Caucasus states, said he had “very good discussions” with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials on US military action in Afghanistan and ways of deepening bilateral defense ties. He held similar talks in Azerbaijan earlier in the day and in Georgia where he arrived late on Saturday.
Rumsfeld and senior US officials on his aircraft told Western journalists on their way to the region that America is anxious to reward the three impoverished countries for their support in the US campaign. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia granted the Pentagon use of their airspace shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
“We have discussed our respective roles and responsibilities with respect to the war on terrorism,” Rumsfeld told reporters after wrapping up the talks in Yerevan. “We also talked about the fact that we are both partners in the NATO Partnership for Peace program.”
Speaking at the joint news conference, Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian reaffirmed Yerevan’s support for the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan. “We expressed our readiness to continue to support the anti-terror effort,” he said.
In Rumsfeld’s words, the decision of the US Congress to allow President George Bush to waive Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act banning direct aid to Baku paves the way for American military assistance to Armenia. “We are expecting that the Congress will act on the waiver for Section 907 some time this week or next, and then our two countries will be able to proceed with the military-to-military relationship, which will be of benefit to both of us,” he said.
The 1992 sanctions have also stymied Washington’s defense links with Armenia because of the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. An amendment to the legislation agreed by a congressional “conference committee” last month allows Bush to freeze Section 907 if he deems US military ties will help the US war on terrorism and contribute to Azerbaijan's border security.
Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev said earlier on Saturday that the amendment will be a “very good Christmas present” for his mainly Muslim nation. He expressed disappointment that it has not already formally entered into force. “I was hoping that when you arrived you would say it had already been waived,” the 78-year-old leader told Rumsfeld, according to Agence France Presse.
The US defense chief, for its part, was quoted by news agencies as expressing hope that the waiver “will be the beginning of improved cooperation between our two countries.” He also thanked Aliev for “the spontaneous concern and expression of support your country has offered to the war on terrorism.”
According to Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Safar Abiev, US and Azeri defense officials will be meeting in the coming weeks to thrash out what forms the new military cooperation would take.
Similar discussions are also expected between US and Armenian officials. While in Yerevan, Rumsfeld also discussed use of $4.3 million in military assistance to Armenia allocated by Congress last month. US lawmakers earmarked the funds in an effort to address Armenian concerns over the lifting of Section 907. Sarkisian said the Armenian military would like to use the aid for training its personnel, modernizing its communication facilities and completing construction of a “de-mining center.”
“I would agree with the Minister’s comments,” Rumsfeld replied when asked about the Pentagon’s view on how the American money should be used.
As he headed for the South Caucasus Rumsfeld said Washington’s drive to forge closer defense links with the three ex-Soviet states reflects new geopolitical opportunities that have arisen since the September 11 terror attacks
“I have said since September 11 that it was important to deal with that war on terrorism but also I have said the events since September 11 have shifted the priorities of an awful lot of countries of the world and their perspective about the United States and the problems of the world,” he said.
“And it does offer an opportunity, it seems to me, to reconnect with these countries in this new circumstance. ...We believe we will be able to have military-to-military relations on a fresh basis soon.”