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The Iranian-Armenian-Russian axis and the war in Ukraine

Iran’s ongoing supply of drones for Russia’s war effort against Ukraine has made headlines around the world. However, what is not being talked about is Armenia’s involvement in this alliance. Yerevan now faces a crucial decision regarding its future as a democratic state.

November 28, 2022 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Armenian Prime Minister, President of Iran meet in New York in September 2022. Press release by the office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia.

Geopolitical alliances in the South Caucasus are long-established and yet they remain beyond comprehension for many western policymakers. This might now be changing with Iran’s direct involvement in the war in Ukraine as a supplier of drones and missiles to Russia. Ukraine, and therefore the West, are de facto at war not only with Russia and Belarus but also with Iran. Yet another regional country – Armenia – is involved through its alliance with Russia and Iran. NATO, the EU and 50 governments are supplying Ukraine with military assistance in what is now a proxy war between the West and Russia.

Iran’s support for the Russian war against Ukraine is being undertaken with the support of Armenia, which is helping Moscow evade sanctions through the supply of Iranian drones and missiles via Armenian air space and airports. Iran Air Cargo, a subsidiary of Iran Air, flew from Yerevan’s Zvartnots International, a civilian airport, to Moscow on September 4th and 5th, following two earlier flights on August 21st and 29th. Iran Air Cargo, Safiran Airport Services and their parent company Iran Air are under US sanctions for transferring, with the help of Armenia, Iranian drones to Russia. Russian Air Force Ilyushin II-76MD planes have also been used to transport the Iranian drones via Yerevan. Russia has used these Iranian drones and missiles to launch terrorist attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure that constitute war crimes.

The Russian-Armenian-Iranian geopolitical alliance is rather odd. Whereas authoritarian Russia and Iran are united on a clear anti-West platform, Armenia is a democratic country. The democratically elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is a regular visitor to Tehran, where Armenia and Iran pursue a close strategic alliance.

Cooperation under the radar

Armenia is flirting with two authoritarian states which are the most sanctioned countries in the world. Nevertheless, Armenia has never been sanctioned for assisting Russia and Iran to evade sanctions or for acting as a middleman for the transfer of Iranian drones and missiles to Russia.

Armenia’s geopolitical alliance with Russia is cemented by its membership of two Kremlin-led organisations. Armenia is a founding member of Russia’s equivalent of the Warsaw Pact that was created in the early 1990s. The CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) brings together five authoritarian states – Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and democratic Armenia. In 2013, Armenia withdrew from signing an Association Agreement with the EU’s Eastern Partnership in favour of joining the Kremlin’s Eurasian Economic Union. Four authoritarian states – Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are members alongside democratic Armenia.

Democratic Armenia has turned its back on the European Union in favour of cozying up to authoritarian Iran, Russia, Belarus and Central Asia. Armenia repeatedly talks of “authoritarian Azerbaijan” and yet is in bed with other authoritarian regimes. Armenia’s close alliance with Iran prevents democratic Armenia from giving its support to the brave Iranian people who are fighting for their freedom. Pashinyan came to power in a colour revolution in 2018.

The US has warned Armenia about its close relations with Iran and Russia, including during the head of the CIA’s visit to Armenia in the summer of 2022. He warned, but Armenia ignored, to stay away from the close military alliance between Iran and Russia. Armenia’s siloviki (army and security forces) have been closely tied to the Russian old boy network since the Soviet era. Meanwhile, the pro-Russian Armenian diaspora has strong influence over the country’s foreign ministry.

Tehran and Baku’s tense links

Iran is a security threat to Azerbaijan – as well as to Ukraine. If a war was to break out between Azerbaijan and Iran, the West would be dragged in as Azerbaijan has a strategic and security partnership with Turkey, which is a NATO member. Turkey would not be passive if Iran launched a war of aggression against Azerbaijan.

Iran has trained and provided finance and intelligence support to Islamic terrorist groups in Azerbaijan and through drones and missiles is assisting Russia in its terrorist campaign against Ukraine. In October, Azerbaijan detained nineteen people belonging to the banned Muslim Unity Movement who had been trained by Iran in Syria to undertake terrorist attacks. They had smuggled banned extremist religious literature into Azerbaijan. T-shirts with extremist religious slogans were brought into Azerbaijan by an Iranian “diplomat” and were to be freely distributed at anti-government rallies.

The Azerbaijani Board of Muslims issued a statement condemning Tehran’s support for Armenia that was encouraging it to not sign a peace treaty brokered by the EU. Anti-Iranian sentiment remains strong in Azerbaijan because of Tehran’s direct and indirect support for Armenia’s occupation of twenty per cent of its territory for nearly three decades. Azerbaijan’s AzTV accused Iran of “doing its best” to prevent Armenia from signing a peace deal with Azerbaijan. Iran’s preference is to have the peace process continue under Russian control and, as with the last three decades, go nowhere.

At the same time, the Board of the Caucasus Muslims said that “If the Iranian state promises weapons and military aid to the party which is threatening its Muslim brother and whose hands are stained with Muslim blood, and equates the security of Armenia with the security of Iran, this is a practical step to promote revanchism and to encourage Armenia to fight a new war, and a direct threat to the state interests of Azerbaijan and our people.”

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, said his country believes that “respecting the territorial integrity of countries as a principle in the Caucasus region should be given serious attention.” Iran’s claim of upholding “territorial integrity” is not compliant with international law. Iran supported Armenia’s territorial revanchism towards Azerbaijan and supports, through the supply of drones and missiles, revanchism against Ukraine.

A third of Iran’s population is Azerbaijani and military conflict with Azerbaijan could lead to the breakup of Iran. On October 30th, Azerbaijan’s Public TV condemned the persecution of Azerbaijanis in Iran and said that ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran had the right to live freely and even have an independent state. Public TV interviewed an Iranian Azerbaijani who said all Azerbaijanis should render material and moral support, through the media and lobbying, to “Southern Azerbaijan” (northern Iran). The Board of the Caucasus Muslims criticised plans to open an Armenian consulate-general in the “ancient Azerbaijani city” of Tabriz in Iran.

The Armenian linchpin

Iran’s double standards regarding the territorial integrity of states are the result of its determination to maintain Armenia’s position within its alliance with Russia. Iran’s foreign minister told his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan, that “we consider Armenia’s security as the security of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the security of the region.”

In August a military drone competition was held in central Iran with Russia, Belarus and Armenia in attendance. Later that same month, Russia used Iranian drones for the first time against Ukraine. The timing was not a coincidence and showed to what degree both of Russia’s puppet states – Armenia and Belarus – are involved in Iran’s military assistance to Moscow. Iran is also supplying combat drones to Armenia.

Armenia has locked itself into a geopolitical alliance with Iran and Russia that is detrimental to its national interests. By assisting in the supply of Iranian drones and missiles to Russia, Armenia has placed itself alongside Belarus as one of the belligerents that Ukraine is fighting against. Armenia’s alliance with Iran and Russia means it is also a belligerent in their war against the West.

Western governments have sanctioned Russia, Belarus and Iran – but not Armenia – for their war against Ukraine. Western governments should threaten Armenia with sanctions unless it halts its support for Iran and Russia. Democratic Armenia should be encouraged to dump its fiercely anti-western allies and re-join the path of European integration that it was on until 2013.

Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and author of the forthcoming Fascism and Genocide. Russia’s War Against Ukrainians.

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