By Emil Danielyan
When a small country looks to military cooperation with the United States these days, the last thing it should presumably do is to think about similar ties with Iran, its neighbor branded by the Bush administration as part of a global “axis of evil.”
Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian defied this conventional wisdom this month when he met with his American 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 spheres, including defense.
Never mind that Washington and Tehran regard each other as anything but friends, and that the latter risks becoming another target of the U.S. anti-terror campaign. But neither appears particularly unhappy with the Caucasus state’s efforts to deepen its generally good rapport with the other. A line which Armenian leaders describe as “complementary foreign policy.”
It has amounted to trying to combine heavy reliance on Russia with close political and economic ties with the West and other major powers. 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, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Admiral Tom Wilson, and other top officials in Washington. The two sides reached agreement on how to use $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 communication facilities of Armenia's armed forces.
Sarkisian said earlier this week that a detailed plan of joint activities will be signed by the U.S. Unified Command in Europe and the Armenian military later this year.
Sarkisian’s visit followed the official opening of a U.S-funded demining center near Yerevan, hailed by the two governments as the first concrete result of bilateral military cooperation. U.S. instructors there will train and equip Armenian personnel for demining civilian areas along the long border with Azerbaijan.
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.
“It would be wrong to argue that if there are Russian troops in Armenia there should be no U.S. presence,” Sarkisian said.
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 units of the Armenian army will for the first time join NATO-led military exercises to be held in neighboring Georgia next June. Similar wargames 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 to the area of defense.
But it remained unclear what concrete forms the Armenian-Iranian defense ties could take. The Armenian defense chief claimed this week that he did not discuss the relations with Iran with U.S. officials in Washington.
Most local observers, meanwhile, take the view that the ongoing search for new strategic partners will not entail radical changes -- at least on the military front -- in President Robert Kocharian’s policy towards Russia. The newspaper “Hayots Ashkhar,” which is close to Kocharian and Sarkisian, insisted on this in a commentary on Tuesday. It said the upcoming U.S. aid is a unique opportunity for the Armenian armed forces to modernize some of their military capabilities.
Indeed, Armenia and Russia sealed last January the entry into force of a defense agreement paving 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.