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IRAN: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia squeezed between Tehran and Washington

December 11, 2010 |  1:47 pm

Iran-armenia

Armenia finds itself in an unfriendly neighborhood and engaged in a highly militarized 20-year territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. It has long pulled off a diplomatic coup, maintaining simultaneous close relations with Iran, Russia and the United States, all three of which it relies on for protection, investment and trade.

But the chickens came home to roost two years ago when it drew the ire of the U.S. government upon the discovery by U.S. intelligence that Armenia had transferred Bulgarian missiles and rockets to Iran, according to a December 2008 cable from the secretary of State, posted on WikiLeaks.

Those weapons were later "recovered from two Shia militant attacks in which a U.S. soldier was killed and six others were injured in Iraq," according to a January 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan. 

Washington was demanding answers, and Armenia was feeling the heat. 

The small nations of the South Caucasus -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia -- find themselves stuck between Iran, which has the potential to stir up trouble in all three nations, and the U.S., which is set on forcing them to cut off ties with the Islamic Republic, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

All three countries suffer from destabilizing internal separatist and ethnic disputes easily exploitable by outsiders. 

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has also been caught in a quandary. Though he is evidently willing to work with U.S. attempts to isolate Iran, a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Baku in February 2010 indicates that he has a full-throated fear of antagonizing his large, rabble-rousing neighbor.

Aliyev told U.S. diplomats that Iranian "provocations in Azerbaijan were on the rise." He said that Iran not only was "financing radical Islamic groups and Hezbollah terrorists" but also stirring up religious tensions in Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan's geographically isolated enclave, staging demonstrations in Baku and at Azeri embassies abroad and attempting to smear Aliyev's name by depicting him next to a Star of David on Iranian television.

Both Aliyev and the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov expressed concern that Azerbaijan would become "a target" for Iranian attacks. Both men cited Azerbaijan's legally murky boundary lines on the Caspian Sea as a likely location for such an attack.

“[Aliyev] viewed the situation as very tense within Iran and believed it could erupt at any time,” the cables said. 

Although in a December 2006 cable Aliyev comes off as defensive, expressing concern over a U.S. policy toward Iran that he "does not understand," he is both more conciliatory and more fearful of Iran in the February 2010 cables. U.S. diplomats quoted Aliyev as saying that "Russian President Medvedev once told him 'that Russia did not want the Americans to squeeze Iran, but it also did not want a nuclear Iran' " -- a dilemma he seems to be able to relate to.

Georgia, for its part, has also found itself between Scylla and Charybdis on several occasions. Two years ago, relations with Iran froze over after Georgian officials, conceding to U.S. demands, agreed to extradite to the U.S. an Iranian citizen on charges of smuggling, money laundering and conspiracy.

Tensions eased in 2010, when Iran and Georgia eliminated mutual visa requirements, reinstated a direct flight between their capitals and agreed to partner on minor trade, tourism and infrastructure projects –- a turn of events that probably raised eyebrows in Washington.

A purported cable, cited by both Russian and Georgian sites but not yet available in the WikiLeaks database, quotes a briefing intended for top U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke before a trip to the South Caucasus. It indicates that Georgia is "trying to manage its relationship with Iran" but is fearful of burning any bridges that might encourage Iran to recognize its separatist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russia did in 2008.

"It cannot afford to alienate a powerful regional neighbor and major commercial partner," the cable is quoted as stating. It is a sentiment that seems to be shared in all the South Caucasus states.

Armenia has long maintained relatively pleasant relations with Iran, in part because it is in desperate need of a regional ally.

After Armenia's alleged transfer of arms to Iran, then-Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte made it clear in a confidential letter to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan that Armenia must shape up and agree to allow U.S. inspectors to drop in unannounced –- or the little country would face "the cutoff of U.S. assistance and certain export restrictions."

U.S. sanctions would be crippling to Armenia, an impoverished country already beset by sanctions from bordering states Azerbaijan and Turkey.

While no further cables indicated whether Armenia followed U.S. orders, the January 2010 cable quotes a contrite head of the Armenian National Security Service, Chairman Gorik Hakobyan, assuring the U.S. ambassador that Armenia planned to comply with all U.S. demands.

"Armenia has a lot of problems and there is no desire to create more problems," Hakobian reportedly said.

The U.S. does not currently impose sanctions on Armenia.

-- Haley Sweetland Edwards in Tblisi, Georgia

Photo: Undated photo that appeared in a 2008 edition of Iran's English-language Tehran Times daily newspaper shows Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, at left, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Credit: Tehran Times

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