By Emil Danielyan and Armen Zakarian
The United States does not object to Armenia's close relations with its arch-rival Iran, but expects Yerevan's support in countering Tehran's perceived efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and undermine the Middle East peace process, according to Ambassador John Ordway.
"We certainly look to Armenia for support in our efforts to deny Iran the means to acquire the weapons of mass destruction as well as to speak out against Iran's support for terrorism, which has a particularly insidious impact on the Middle East peace process," Ordway told RFE/RL in an interview on Thursday.
"We certainly understand Armenia's geographic and geopolitical situation in this part of the world," he said. "Maintaining solid trade and good neighborly border relations with Iran is critically important for Armenia. We have nothing against that."
But Ordway added that Armenia should at the same time share U.S. concerns about "Iran's support for terrorism." "It seems to me that Armenia, as a country which is so close to Iran, should have the very same concerns," he said.
Close political and economic ties with Muslim Iran have been a major component of Armenian foreign policy over the past decade. Both Armenia and Iran have strained relations with neighboring Azerbaijan and are seen as having a common interest in limiting Turkey's influence in the region. They also enjoy a good rapport with Russia.
Yerevan, in the meantime, has sought to maintain simultaneously good relations with West and the United States in particular. Armenian officials have indicated recently that global geopolitical changes caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States necessitate a pro-Western tilt in their foreign policy. They have said that the unfolding U.S.-Armenian military cooperation should be viewed in that context.
Ordway appears to be the fist American government official to have publicly voiced reservations about Armenia's policy on Iran. The remarks followed a further worsening of U.S.-Iranian relations triggered by President George W. Bush's charge that the Islamic Republic is part of a global "axis of evil."
The U.S. envoy said Armenia should primarily rule out transit of non-conventional weapons through its territory into Iran and "add its voice to ours of concern about what Iran is doing."
The U.S. has already helped Armenia strengthen its border security, providing relevant equipment and training to Armenian border guards for the past three years. The rugged Armenian-Iranian border has been the main focus of the effort.
Analysts, however, believe that Yerevan is unlikely to risk spoiling its vital relationship with Tehran by endorsing U.S. criticism of Iranian policy on the Middle East. The two neighboring states are planning to launch several multimillion-dollar commercial projects and have agreed recently to embark on military cooperation. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, for example, received his Iranian counterpart in Yerevan last March, two weeks before traveling to Washington for talks with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top U.S. officials.
Sarkisian underlined his country's "complementary" foreign policy by declaring that Yerevan wants to have "friendly" relations with U.S. and Iranian militaries, which are mutually hostile, in addition to its military alliance with Russia.
According to Ordway, the U.S. and Russia have "no contradictions at all" regarding Armenia and have "common interests" in the South Caucasus. "Neither one of us wants to give terrorists the opportunity to establish a foothold in the region. We both see that its economic development is very important," he said.
Ordway said the two big powers also cooperate very closely in the OSCE Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh which they co-chair together with France. "We speak with one voice," he claimed.
Commenting on the Karabakh conflict, Ordway said Washington continues to view the disputed region as part of Azerbaijan but does not rule out territorial changes as a result of a peaceful settlement. He said: "There has never been any doubt that our official position is that the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan are the Soviet-era borders. But I think it would also be a mistake to say that that in any way predetermines the outcome of the negotiations over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh."
"Nothing has been ruled in, nothing has been ruled out," the diplomat continued. "At the end of the day, what we really need...is a settlement that is durable, stable and largely acceptable to all of the people of the region."