Armenia Monitoring Ongoing US-Iran Tensions Following Airstrike

YEREVAN—Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has called for level heads to prevail as tensions in the region flared over the death of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in last week’s US airstrike. Broadcasting on Facebook Live during a hike in the Armenian mountains, the Prime Minister stressed the importance of Armenia avoiding entanglement on either side of a potential escalation between the two countries. “Our message is for our partners of Iran and the United States to refrain from steps that would aggravate the already tense situation in our region and international relations,” he declared from atop a mountain, flanked by accompanying hikers, including repatriates from Iran and the United States.

Authorities in Yerevan were quick to react to the targeted airstrike last Friday, which killed the high-profile head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s controversial Quds Force as well as Iraqi paramilitary leaders. Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan reportedly expressed condolences to his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in a phone call apparently initiated by the Iranian side for the loss of the prominent military figure, but stopped short of condemning the US action. Armenia’s top diplomats and military brass convened for an emergency meeting later on Friday to assess the developing strategic situation in the Middle East and to discuss contingency plans for various scenarios. 

Qassem Soleimani’s prepared grave at Kerman Martyrs Cemetery, January 5, 2020 (Photo: Fars News Agency/Mohammad Ali Marizad/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License)

Iran has vowed to retaliate against US strategic assets in the region over the killing of the top general, which it described as both “an act of war” and “state terrorism.” The White House countered that Soleimani posed a legitimate target due to his alleged involvement in violence surrounding the US embassy in Baghdad over Christmas. Analysts have suggested that Iran would employ its proxies across the Middle East to hit US soft targets in the region. However, Tehran has publicly ruled out asymmetric warfare, opting instead to target US military personnel directly. Early Wednesday morning, Iranian missiles struck two US bases in Iraq, claiming to have killed up to 80 Americans. Hours later at the White House, President Donald Trump announced that Americans did not perish in the attack. “We suffered no casualties. Iran appears to be standing down,” said President Trump before noting the imposition of more sanctions on the Iranian regime until it “changes its behavior.”

Despite Yerevan’s repeated assertions of neutrality in any potential US-Iranian conflict, many in Armenia fear that due to geographical proximity and economic ties to Iran, the country would certainly be affected by any hostilities in the region. Both Iran and the United States are home to very large Armenian minorities, with the 100,000 or so members of Iran’s 400-year-old Armenian community concentrated in the cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Urmia with more rural communities stretched along the Iran-Armenian border. President Trump’s call to destroy Iranian cultural sites has also led to concern over the security of priceless Armenian cultural icons which dot the country, including the Saint Stepanos and Saint Thaddeus monasteries located just cross the border from present-day Armenia and New Julfa. Many Iranians have taken to social media to share photos of the country’s world-renowned cultural and historical landmarks, including Armenian sites.

Iran is also a major Armenian trade partner, as well as a vital route for almost one-third of Armenian goods headed to international markets due to the ongoing illegal blockade of two international borders by Turkey and Azerbaijan over the unresolved Karabakh conflict. Trade turnover between the two countries reached $364 million last year despite Armenia’s reluctant compliance with re-imposed US sanctions on Iranian assets. Armenia has also been the leading voice inside the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union for closer economic ties with Iran, even spearheading the ratification of a historic free trade agreement earlier this year.   

The United States Embassy in Yerevan announced that it would be temporarily suspending all visa and consular services for Iranian citizens, citing the ongoing diplomatic crisis between the two countries as a reason. “The U.S. Embassy consular section has notified applicants whose appointments have been canceled via email,” read the statement on their website. The embassy in Yerevan has traditionally served Iranians as well, being the closest US diplomatic mission to Iran since the Tehran facility was closed following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. 

Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) also arrested a man over the weekend who allegedly used a fake social media handle to spread false information “potentially harmful to Armenia’s national security interests.” According to the NSS, the man set up a Facebook page under the assumed identity Diana Arutyunyan to spread claims that Pashinyan had congratulated Trump over the targeted drone strike which killed Soleimani. Though the man’s identity has yet to be made public, a video released by the NSS depicts the suspect, a self-described supporter of disgraced former President Robert Kocharyan, admitting to being behind the page setup to spread disinformation about the Pashinyan administration. He is being charged with “inciting national, racial and religious hostility” under the Armenian Criminal Code.

Pashinyan himself reacted to the arrest, calling the suspect’s claim “fake news.” The Prime Minister did not congratulate Trump, nor did he speak with him at all following the airstrike. Instead, his administration expressed concern over US escalation of tensions. “It is our hope that friendly Iran and the United States will initiate immediate negotiations to prevent further deterioration,”  the Prime Minister later repeated. 

The suspect’s admission to spreading “fake news” did not stop Azerbaijani State Media from picking up the story, however. According to analyst Emil Sanamyan, Azerbaijani sources have also propagated photos purporting to show Soleimani with Armenian military commander Monte Melkonian as evidence of Iran’s support of the Armenian side during the 1988-1994 Karabakh War. However, as Facebook user George Arakelian pointed out, the photo in question was actually taken in 2015, 22 years after Melkonian’s death. Not only had the two never met in person, but Melkonian’s well-publicized sympathies for Iranian Kurds also would have placed them at odds.

For his part, Pashinyan continues to call for de-escalating tensions, pointing to Armenia’s historically close relations with both Iran and the United States. He has also made assurances that all relevant government bodies were closely monitoring the rapidly developing situation.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

7 Comments

  1. Good and objective report by Raffi.
    Armenia is caught between a rock and a hard place. A very sensitive position.
    Iran is an important ally to Armenia. An important border partner economically and politically.
    On the other hand, Armenia has been trying to improve its ties with the US.
    Pashinian’s call to de-escalate tensions is politically savvy; however, being a small country how much influence can it have?
    May be staying neutral is the best course. There is too much at stake.
    Vart Adjemian

  2. There will be no dialogue or peace between Iran and the US. The US will not stop going after Iran until there is regime change. Best for Armenia to still call for dialogue and stay neutral.

    With Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq (for now) and the allies for hire Turkey, it is doubtful Armenia will be needed for military purposes. If anything, they may need to be ready to receive refugees from Iran if there is serious military action.

  3. I would not call extensive economic ties with Iran, in addition to expressing condolences, while ignoring President Trump, as being “neutral”. When you sleep with the Devil, don’t be surprised when you get burned.

  4. US policy in the Middle East has long been the product of Israel and the Jewish lobby.

    They basically control US policy, in league with those ridiculous pro-Israel “evangelicals.”

    The latter are more Jewish than Christian. They’re more Israeli than American.

    Their 1st loyalty is not to America. They should register as foreign agents under FARA.

    Check this out: https://www.cufi.org/ (“Christians” United for Israel).

    And don’t be fooled: Israel is just waiting for a change in leadership in Turkey to
    become pro-Turkish once more. In reality, except for an occasional outburst
    against Turkey, most Jews and Israel have never stopped being pro-Turkish.
    And the Jewish lobby is still anti-Armenian. Don’t be naive.

    • To be certain, CUFI director John Hagee considers Hitler a divine emissary whose duty was to force the Jews back to Israel. No surprise that Trump sent him and Robert Jeffress (another Jew-hater) to oversee the opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem.

      The christo-fascists want WWIII to happen to bring about their Buybull-inspired fantasy of Jesus returning.

      It’s also worth noting that it’s been Jews (Noam Chomsky, George Soros, Bernie Sanders, Amy Goodman, Sarah Silverman) who have spoken up the most forcefully for the Palestinians.

  5. At this point I don’t know whether civilization’s end will come from global warming or a nuclear holocaust brought about by the overgrown Oompa Loompa.

  6. The assassination of general Soleimani may have been unexpected by Iran, but it seems to me the subsequent events were all done with prearranged agreements. The US tried to call Iran’s bluff, and Iran resolved to retaliate no matter what, but because Iran doesn’t want a war (and neither does Trump himself) the two parties agreed to diffuse the situation in a way where “both parties would save face”.

    Trump is under orders and obligation to Jewish-Israeli Zionist billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson (who pretty much funded Trump’s entire campaign). Thus Trump did his part in ordering the assassination of a high-level official of Iran to the (temporary) satisfaction of the Israelis and Israel-Firsters operating out of the USA. However, because the assassination was done in Iraq and not Iran, the latter got caught between a rock and a hard place.

    In order to respond to this aggression by the US, the leaders of Iran had no other choice but to announce their intent to retaliate. If they did not take this route, the people of Iran would likely lose all respect for the government, which in turn would result in a lot of instability for the country, possibly leading to “regime change”.

    With all this said, Iran also did not want to escalate anything while retaliating, thus most likely the US was warned of the Iranian missile strikes on the Iraqi military base which also hosted the American military. No Americans died in the strikes while the Iranian missiles showed a high degree of accuracy – that is very telling.

    However, Iran also met one of its objectives in this military engagement with the US: it showed that it’s missiles are in fact very capable of striking American military interests in the region including Israel, with the potential of causing massive damage. Had Iran’s missiles randomly landed in the deserts (similar to the toy rockets Hamas supposedly sends against Israel), they would have become the laughing stock of the world. But now the US knows definitively that Iran has very accurate ballistic missiles which it will not hesitate to use in a full scale war.

    At any rate that is how I came to view this conflict, and the reason why everything got quickly diffused, at least for the time being.

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