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Iran is widely believed to be arming Armenia, as Yerevan is under blockade from its neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey. Armenia shares about 44 km of border with the Islamic Republic, and despite religious and ideological differences, relations between the two countries remain cordial.
Armenia and Iran are also strategic partners in the region. The volume of bilateral trade hit $364 million in 2018—a record high since Armenia became independent after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In the early ’90s, during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Tehran remained neutral in the conflict on the rhetorical level, in actual fact, Iran served as the main supply route for Armenia. Iran’s policy towards the conflict and the two protagonists was shaped by a number of factors, not least Tehran’s desire to pre-empt ethnic strife among its large domestic Azerbaijani minority, while also balancing Iran’s relations with Russia and the United States.
Amid heightened tensions arising in the mountainous Caucasus region between Armenia and Azerbaijan which lasted from September 27 to November 10, Iran has picked to fight on the former’s side and has reportedly deployed 200 heavy armor tanks to Yerevan.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the total value of arms exports from Russia, Belarus, China, Montenegro, Slovakia, Ukraine and unknown supplier(s) were 916 million dollars between 1993 and 2019. The main military deliveries were air defense systems, armored vehicles, artillery and missiles.
Armenia spent $5 billion to buy the equipment between 2015 and 2019. Armenia’s economy slumped 13.7% in the first half of 2020 and its public debt reached $8 billion, while military equipment imports increased 415% since 2010.
Bilateral trade of arms
The bilateral cooperation in the sphere of arms trade began at the beginning of 1990, as Armenia was under blockade from Azerbaijan and Turkey, and Iran made it possible to transport goods by rail across its border to Armenia. In return, the Armenian authorities turned a blind eye to the outflow of part of the arms received from Russia. The Iranians at that time were interested mainly in receiving from the former Soviet arsenals, munitions and spare parts for tanks, artillery, and rocket complexes.
In 1992 and 1993, supply routes from all of Armenia’s neighbors except for Iran were closed or unreliable. Thus, Yerevan was only able to continue the war because of critical fuel, food and weapons supplies that reached it via Iran. Moreover, fuel from Russia during the war was often delivered to Armenia by way of Iran.
However, in April 1994, Tehran rejected a Turkish media report on selling missiles to Yerevan, saying “baseless allegations were aimed at tarnishing the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
The arms transfers made to Armenia in 1992-1996 did not receive any official approval from the Kremlin. They were carried out through channels connected with the “gray” and “black” markets in arms that blossomed in those years in the former Soviet Union states. Whenever the interests of high-ranking military officers and businessmen predominated in such deliveries, the resale of the weapons, mainly to Iran, was facilitated.
In the second half of the 1990s, Iran became interested in factories and scientific research institutes involved in military production. Following the instructions of Armenian engineers, Iranians were able to achieve the production of complete units at their factories, having received the basic elements of valuable systems (for example, rocket navigation and guidance systems) and instruments and parts.
In May 2002, the US State Department blacklisted the Armenian businessman Armen Sargsian and the private Armenian chemical factory Lizen Open Joint Stock Co who had allegedly sold biochemical equipment to an Iranian-linked company registered in the United Arab Emirates. The sanction accused them of involving in “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles” in Iran.
The blacklisted Armenian entrepreneur appears to be the youngest brother of Vazgen Sargsian, the former prime minister murdered in the 1999 terrorist attack on Armenia’s parliament. However, Armen Sarkisian denied reports that he purchased Lizin in 1997 by capitalizing on his powerful brother’s political clout. Before imposing the sanctions, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan warned the Armenian government warning that Lizin’s biochemical equipment could be used for military purposes.
The equipment was dismantled from a Soviet-era Armenian factory that used to grow special bacteria for the production of lysine, an amino acid added to animal fodder. Scientists say the bacteria could also generate other biochemical substances.
According to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, between April 2006 and June 2008, coalition forces in Iraq recovered from Iranian-backed militias multiple RPG-22 antitank weapons and PKM machine guns purchased by Armenia, and some of the weapons were used to kill American servicemen.
The United States concluded the weapons could only have reached Iraq via a deal between Armenia and Iran. Then Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte pressed then Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian to “ensure such transfers do not occur in the future”.
In early 2017, during his official visit to Iran to discuss military cooperation in the fields of military industry and science, Armenian Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan held security talks with Iran’s National Security Council, and visited several defense industries. “Armenia seeks to expand its cooperation with Iran in the defense sphere and we believe that this visit will promote further cooperation,” Sargsyan told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Dehghani.
In his book “Narco-Karabakh” (2019), British researcher Harrold Cane noted that Samvel Babayan, a representative of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, participated in the delivery of weapons from Armenia to other countries through the territories of Georgia and Iran.
Russia’s transfer of weapons via Iran
Russia has supplied 94% of military equipment Armenia has obtained in the past five years, including the S-300 anti-missile system, Tor missile systems, 9K720 Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems and SU-30 warplanes.
In May 2017, Vladimir Evseev, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and head of the Caucasus Department of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Institute, noted the need to take respective steps to form Armenia-Iran-Russia defense triangle. “Moreover, this must be directed not only towards political cooperation, but also a military one, the grounds of which we already have”, he said.
Some news and social media reports claimed in early October 2020 that Iran has opened its airspace, and its territory to facilitate the transport of military equipment and weaponry to Armenia, mainly through Iran’s Norduz border point, as well as supplying fuel to the Armenian forces in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
However, Iranian officials repeatedly denied the fact of transportation of Russian weaponry across the Iranian-Armenian border crossing Meghri-Norduz.
In August 2020, Azerbaijan uncovered regular flights of military cargo from Russia to Armenia, that were forced to make a detour on their way to Armenia after Georgia refused to give them permission to use its airspace between July 17 and August 6. Heavy cargo-carrying airplanes were forced to take a much longer route stretching from Russia to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran (cities of Nowshahr and Rasht).
On September 30, Iranian state-owned TV IRIB news confirmed social media footage of brand new Kamaz trucks crossing borders into Armenia, saying the latter had bought them from Russia. However, in their interviews with the TV, the drivers in Norduz border point denied their lorries were loaded with weapons and ammunition.
The drivers also said that a total of 670 lorries will be delivered to Armenia, and 600 of them have still not departed Iran’s Anzali port that located on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea.
The Telegram channel Armenian Stories channel said on October 14, the lifting of the UN’s arms embargo on Iran will also meet the interests of Yerevan, in terms of bilateral weapons trade, as wells as arms transfer through Iran.
“The arms embargo against Iran expires on Sunday [October 18], and the country will sell and buy weapons freely. Perhaps, Armenia will soon receive Iranian drones and other weapons. Moreover, Iran will officially be able to act as a transit country in the supply of weapons to Armenia, as well as arms from the third countries,” the channel said.
Situation after the 44-day war
After Azerbaijan’s victory in its six-week war with Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan now controls the entirety of its border with Iran along the Aras River. Iran considers Russia a partner and is not concerned about Russian peacekeepers’ presence near its borders, but it would be hard for Iran to accept Turkey’s increasing role so close by.
Tehran is also anxious about the future plan for the Nakhchivan corridor, and describes this as the abolishment of the Iran-Armenia border. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araqchi said on November 13 that ” the formation of a corridor in Armenia or even on Iranian soil, geopolitical change in the region, etc, which are not true and are based on particularly biased political and propaganda aims“.