The confirmation of Heffern to the post in Yerevan looked certain after the career diplomat secured the backing of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month.
Heffern’s appointment was announced by President Barack Obama in May. He is to replace Marie Yovanovitch, who ended her three-year tour of duty in Yerevan in June and returned to Washington to serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Northern and Central Europe.
Heffern served as deputy head of the U.S. Mission at the NATO headquarters in Brussels when he was nominated for the vacant diplomatic post in Yerevan. He was previously the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia.
U.S. -- Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
The Senate panel was initially due to vote on the diplomat’s nomination in July. The vote was postponed after one of its members, Senator Robert Menendez, said he needed more time to review Heffern’s answers to his questions regarding the World War One-era slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey which many historians and about two dozen governments of the world consider to be the first genocide of the 20th century.
Heffern refused to describe the massacres as genocide during a committee hearing held in July. He said then “the characterization of those events is a policy decision that is made by the president of the United States and that policy is enunciated in his April 24 Remembrance Day statement.” Obama declined to use the word genocide in that statement, contrary to his promises given to the influential Armenian-American community during the last U.S. presidential race.
“Although we remain disappointed with a number of his responses to Senate inquiries, we look forward, in the coming months and years, to working with Ambassador Heffern to expand U.S.-Armenia relations on the basis of commonly-held values and shared interests, with particular focus on the bilateral trade and investment issues,” commented ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian, upon Heffern’s confirmation. “Ambassador Heffern can play a vital role in expanding U.S.-Armenia trade, which has yet to reach the $200 million a year mark, by leading the way toward a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) and an updated Double Taxation Treaty. With these accords in place and a firm commitment by all stake-holders to act decisively and pro-actively, there is no reason we can’t reach more than a billion dollars a year in bilateral trade within the next five years.”
By contrast, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey nominee Francis Ricciardone, who was to be fast-tracked for consideration on the floor along with Heffern’s nomination, has yet to be scheduled for Senate confirmation. Ambassador Ricciardone faced opposition within the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim Risch (R-ID) prior to the panel’s approval of his nomination.
Obama’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to Turkey angered the Armenian-American community when he told Menendez last month that most of more than 2,000 Armenian churches that existed in Turkey before 1915 are still functioning. Ricciardone failed to placate the community leaders and pro-Armenian legislators after seemingly retracting that claim later in August. Menendez stated that he had “lost confidence” in the nominee before voting against Ricciardone’s confirmation along with two other senators. But that did not keep the other members of the Senate panel from approving the diplomat’s appointment then.