by Aris Ghazinyan
Armenia-Iran relations date back more than 2,500 years to a time when two kindred nations are believed to have developed from a common linguistic family. Notably, the term "Armenian" was first recorded in the 4th century B.C. by Persian king Darius. Up until the early 1800s, Yerevan was the center of a khanate that was a part of the Persian Empire.
From that time till now—and including when diplomatic ties between independent Armenia and Iran developed in 1992—the countries have shared many commonalities. For centuries they worshipped the same gods and royal dynasties shared kindred relations.
They also engaged in fierce wars which, following Armenia's conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, took on religious implications. Still, though, an extraordinary feature of the central Yerevan landscape is the "Blue Mosque," the residence of the viceroy of the Persian emperor or "Shah."
The mosque was built as a house of prayer in 1766 during the reign of Hussein Ali, the Khan of Yerevan. Communists closed the mosque from worship in 1931, at which time it was turned into a museum. But after independence, it was revived in the mid-1990s as a religious and cultural center and renovated for service by the Islamic community of Armenia—most of whom are Iranian.
During the latest period of official relations between Armenia and Iran, a fundamentally new environment took shape in the region. The collapse of the Soviet Union was accompanied by the outbreak of military hostilities in the Caucasus, including the bloody Karabakh war. Moscow proved unable to prevent the war, and the overall impression was that, after 200 years of political presence, Russia was gradually abandoning the region. Turkey, which had been fighting against Iran and Russia for centuries for control over the Caucasus, dramatically activated its efforts, with the purpose of occupying the seemingly "vacant" region.
In 1992, Armenia was at war with Azerbaijan and locked in direct confrontation with Turkey, which led to the blockade of all of Armenia's external trade, transport and energy links. Armenia's northern neighbor Georgia was hardly able to bear the burden of its own problems, which included civil war and hostilities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a result, the Abkhazian part of the Transcaucasian railway connecting Armenia with Russia was also blocked. The ethnic Azeri population of Georgia, which remained free from central Georgian control, actively participated in the blockade of Armenia by repeatedly sabotaging and disrupting the region's Soviet-era pipeline, which passed through their district supplying Armenia with Russian fuel.
Apart from its natural southern border with Iran, Armenia was, in effect, cut off from the world. Diplomatic relations between Armenia and Iran were established under these very difficult circumstances. By then, Nagorno Karabakh was under constant attack and the hostilities spread throughout 11 of the 36 regions of totally blockaded Armenia. In addition, Turkish army divisions were stationed a mere 50 kilometers from Yerevan. Armed groups from Chechnya, Pakistan and Afghanistan were also actively engaged in fighting against the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh.
There is hardly room for doubt that, if not for Tehran's balanced policy in the region, the newly formed Armenian statehood would have faced incomparably harder issues. The Islamic Republic of Iran categorically hindered Azerbaijan's and Turkey's efforts to proclaim jihad to Armenians in the whole Muslim world and give a religious coloring to the Karabakh war. It was during that most complicated period of Armenia's history when Armenia's 42-kilometer border with Iran became the only stable link to the outside world. The almost 400-kilometer highway connecting blockaded Yerevan with the Iranian border was non-officially called "the road of life" among Armenians.
The fact that Iran signed an agreement to supply Iranian gas to Armenia in 1992 testifies to Tehran's readiness to support its northern neighbor from the very beginning. Nonetheless, the ongoing hostilities along the whole perimeter of the Armenian-Azeri front did not allow Iran to proceed with the construction of that pipeline. In 1995, Yerevan and Tehran signed a new intergovernmental agreement, which was a refined variant of the previous one with a specified route of the perspective gas pipeline. But that agreement was not implemented as the war over Karabakh expanded to Armenia's Meghri region, bordering Iran, which was the preferred route for the pipeline.
The construction of a bridge over the border river Arax played an important role in the process of ensuring a stable external link for Armenia. Construction began in 1994, during the final active stage of the Karabakh war. The opening of that most important communication corridor in 1996 became the first large joint project that was able to lessen the impact of the blockade and was supported by the first Iran-Armenia electrical power transmission line, commissioned in 1995. The crucial power link became especially critical because construction on a second block of Armenia's Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant had been halted following the 1988 earthquake.
Common cause connections
Viewed superficially, Iran's sympathies toward Armenia seem unlikely when taking into consideration the fact that Iran has a population of some 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis, who, unlike the Sunni Azerbaijanis, are closer to the Iranians by virtue of their Shi'ite religion. However, to understand the logic of Armenian-Iranian relations, one must first recognize that, for a number of reasons, Iran cannot be objectively interested in strengthening Azerbaijan's position.
It is universally acknowledged that one of the main goals for the declaration of the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1918 was the breakup of Persia (the official name of Iran until 1936). Persia did not recognize the new state, which existed only two years before its incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1920.
An attempt to divide Iran came in 1941, under the leadership of Soviet Azerbaijan's First Secretary Mirdjafar Bagirov, in the Azerbaijan province in Iran. The Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed there, with its own government and army of 70,000. Azerbaijani was declared as a state language and the new government issued their own state money. Only the intervention of the United States and Great Britain saved Iran from partition.
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, history repeated. On the very last day of 1989, thousands of "northern Azerbaijanis" destroyed the border posts along the Soviet-Iranian border and crossed the border river Arax (which also flows through Armenia). The movement to claim Nakhichevan for Azerbaijan was led by future Azeri president Heydar Aliyev. Until now, in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku, the dismantlement of the Iranian border is viewed as "the symbol of Azerbaijani unity."
Uniting the Azeris of Iran and those of Azerbaijan was even included in the pre-election campaign program of the most influential party – the Azerbaijan Popular Front – headed by Abulfaz Elchibey. As Turkey's protégé and Aliyev's immediate predecessor, Elchibey, after his election as president in 1992, declared that "the unity of two Azerbaijans is my cherished dream and goal."
And so it is that Armenia's southern neighbor—despite its massive Azeri population and a shared religion with Azerbaijan—has itself experienced division created by an "enclave."
The separatist actions of the Azeri leadership were advantageous for Armenian relations with Iran and the next stage of Armenian–Iranian diplomacy became more productive. Unlike the past, when bilateral collaboration was more characterized by the fact that Iran supported Armenia during the war, blockade and energy crisis, and helped Armenia to survive, the second stage of relations was marked more by economic developments. At the same time, relations were complicated as the US—while financially propping up Armenia—imposed tighter sanctions in 1996 against Iran and all companies and countries investing in Iran in excess of $40 million.
In this respect, Armenia adopted a more cautious "wait-and-see" attitude for some time and simply watched the developments around its southern neighbor.
During this crucial period, the most important event for Armenia was Russia's gradual return to the region, which became more pronounced during 1997-1998. It was at that point that Moscow signed a contract with Iran for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr. Due to that agreement, Yerevan and Tehran renewed plans of a gas pipeline project. Now, though, a third player—Russia's Gazprom—entered the game. With the participation of Gazprom, the project assumed a new level of intensity, with statements on other joint projects made at the same time, including the construction of a hydroelectric station on the Arax River.
The US sanctions imposed on Iran, however, forced a freeze on the majority of those projects for an indefinite period.