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

By Emil Danielyan
Of the three former Soviet republics of the South Caucasus, only Armenia is not part of the 49-nation "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.

Its 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 number-one 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 American troops to invade Iraq from its territory.

"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,” said Aghasi Yenokian, director of the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, an independent think tank. “That attitude is now tilted in Azerbaijan's favor," he added.

Indeed, Azerbaijan's substantial Caspian oil reserves have been a key driving force behind Western, and especially American, involvement in the region. Armenians have long-suspected the U.S. 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 UN curbs on exports of the much cheaper Iraqi oil will likely render the ambitious project even less economical. A plunge in oil prices (they tumbled 25 percent in the week preceding the war alone) would hit Azerbaijan hard -- a welcome development for resource-poor Armenia. Oil revenues are critical to Baku's ability to strengthen its armed forces and win back Karabakh.

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 Iraq missions. 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 Anglo-American efforts to topple Saddam's regime because that could reduce Turkey's geopolitical significance for the U.S.

"Armenia will definitely get more room to maneuver,” he told RFE/RL. “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."

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 American 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 America's conservative political circles who have close ties with the Bush administration and are traditionally sympathetic toward Turkey. Ariel Cohen of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation wrote recently that the U.S. 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."

In the words of Andranik Migranian, a well-known Armenian-born political scientist based in Moscow: "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 U.S. 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."

(EPA-Photolur photo: A British Royal Marine firing a Milan wire guided missile at an Iraqi position on the Al Faw peninsula, Southern Iraq.)