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Sanctions Expose U.S. Unease Over Iran-Armenia Ties

By Emil Danielyan

The United States’ unexpected decision to impose sanctions on Armenian firms suspected of helping Iran develop weapons of mass destruction was an embarrassment for Yerevan and a sign that Washington is no longer willing to acquiesce deepening Armenian-Iranian ties.

The Armenian government has moved quickly to investigate the American claims, stressing at the same time that it has not been directly implicated by the U.S. State Department in allegedly shady deals with Iran. But all the indications are that it will have to review its warm relationship with Iran in order to repair the damage.

“The Americans were never happy with our cooperation with Iran,” an Armenian official familiar with foreign affairs told RFE/RL this week. “But until recently they were quite cautious in voicing their objections. Now they are following Armenian-Iranian contacts more closely and have already narrowed our freedom of action on that front.”

According to former foreign minister Alexander Arzumanian, Armenia will risk spoiling its vital relationship with the world’s sole superpower unless it addresses American concerns. “The atmosphere of mutual trust in U.S.-Armenian relations has been undermined and that could lead to a revision of some aspects of those relations,” he said in an RFE/RL interview.

The Bush administration has yet to publicize the names of those Armenian entities which the State Department says transferred sensitive technology and equipment to Iran. The department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said on Friday that these items are listed on multilateral export control lists that seek to curb the transfer of longer-range missiles and prevent the spread of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Armenian leaders did not deny the U.S. allegations. “We should probably prove that that was not the case,” President Robert Kocharian said for his part. “But if that was the case, then we should figure out why it happened.”

The nature of activities for which the still unnamed Armenian companies are facing sanctions is also unclear. Of all the products made in the impoverished country, electronic items seem most likely to attract the attention of U.S. non-proliferation experts. Armenia used to be an important part of the Soviet hi-tech defense industry, supplying microchips, semi-conductors, computer software and other electronic components for missile guidance systems.

About two dozen factories were involved in the sector. All of them are now either fully or partly owned by the state. This fact gives observers reason to believe that those enterprises, which have struggled to survive since the 1991 Soviet collapse, could not have sold sensitive products to Iran without the government’s knowledge.

“There is no way any local company engaged in dangerous deals with Iran and our authorities were unaware of that,” Arzumanian agreed. “I rule that out.”

So, it appears, do the Americans, who slapped the sanctions without warning Armenia beforehand. And although Boucher made it clear that the Armenian government has been “very helpful” in U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction, it was quite an extraordinary move. It came amid the toughening of U.S. policy toward America’s number one enemy in the Middle East following President George W. Bush’s charge that Iran is part of a global “axis of evil.”

This policy change is bound to have implications for Washington’s hitherto tolerant approach to the decade-old close ties between Armenia and Iran. Especially after the two neighboring states, which have a common interest in limiting Turkish influence in the region, agreed tentative plans last March for the start of military cooperation. Incidentally, the agreement came two weeks before Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s official visit to Washington during which he discussed use of the first-ever U.S. military assistance to his country. The delicate line epitomized Armenia’s “complementary” foreign policy.

However, the latest developments could make it more difficult for Armenia to continue to pursue that strategy.

Just several days before the announcement of the sanctions, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway issued what now looks like a veiled warning that Yerevan has gone too far in cementing its links with the Islamic Republic. In an interview with RFE/RL, Ordway said while his country “has nothing against” the Armenian-Iranian partnership, it expects Armenia’s support in countering Iran’s alleged plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Ordway noted that Armenia has “international obligations” to prevent the transfer of components for such weapons and urged the Kocharian government to “add its voice to ours of concern about what Iran is doing.”

It was the first time that a U.S. official publicly voiced reservations about the Armenian-Iranian relations. Ordway, who was the number two figure in the U.S. embassy in Moscow before his posting to Armenia, must have closely watched Russia’s arms exports to Iran, one of the thorniest issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Some state-controlled Russian entities have previously been subjected to similar U.S. sanctions for assisting in Iran’s nuclear programs and selling weapons to Tehran. That, however, has not deterred Moscow from signing more lucrative deals with the Iranians.

Tiny Armenia, by contrast, is not in a position to ignore U.S. worries. Not just because it is a major per-capital recipient of American aid. 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.

In the past they have succeeded in persuading Washington that their bilateral projects with Iran, notably the planned construction of a gas pipeline, do not contradict U.S. interests in the region.

Arzumanian, who headed the foreign ministry in 1996-98, said: “The Americans always presented their concerns regarding Armenia’s relations with Iran. But our mutual trust allowed us to first talk about those concerns and then take steps to dispel them and make sure that there are no doubts that Armenia does not cooperate with Iran to the detriment of any other friendly state.”

It may still be possible to carry on with that policy. But that will likely require the Armenian leadership to exercise greater caution toward Iran by tightening export controls and possibly shelving bilateral defense projects.