4 December, 2018 10:15

Impact of Bolton’s Trip to the South Caucasus: Q/A with Emil Sanamyan

In October 2018, US national security adviser John Bolton visited Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Many saw the trip as an attempt by the conservative policy-maker to further squeeze Iran with sanctions. CivilNet’s Syuzanna Petrosyan spoke with Washington D.C.-based journalist and Fellow of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies Emil Sanamyan, about the impact of Bolton’s visit in the region.

Syuzanna Petrosyan: Armenia is doing a couple of things here that are of concern to the Trump Administration. Armenia is sending troops to work with Syrian peacekeepers and Armenia is maintaining good relations with Iran through economic, energy and security cooperation. How is all of this going to play out?

Emil Sanamyan: Well, we will see how it actually plays out, but I have to say on Syria we have a situation where Nikol Pashinyan, the new leader of Armenia, is trying to allay any concerns the Russian leadership may have about his position stemming from the tension that happened over the summer between Armenian and Russian leaders. Shortly after, Nikol Pashinyan raised the possibility that Armenia will be sending peacekeepers consisting of a small detachment of de-miners and medics to Syria. This is actually similar to the composition of peacekeepers that Armenia sent to Iraq with the United States-led operation there years ago. So, I think it’s sort of a gesture on the part of Armenia towards Russia. I think Armenia probably is able to explain that to the United States, explain that this is something they are doing to make sure they are not really having any kind of pushback from Russia after the change of government. I think from the US perspective it is not a big deal, it came up during Bolton’s visit, as something to talk about.

Emil SanamyanOn Iran, of course Iran is the very important sort of issue for Bolton specifically. Bolton is very head on, strong minded about Iran. He is kind of a man on a mission on this issue and perhaps may not necessarily be representing the majority view in Washington or even in the Trump administration. So, he is pushing any kind of pressure he can on Iran and we heard that after Bolton’s visit, we had experts from the United States come to Yerevan, and to Baku, and to Tbilisi to talk about this new round of financial sanctions against Iran.

I’m not sure what the exact regulations are. But a lot of the Armenian banks have moved to curtail their operations with Iranian citizens, even if they’re long-time residents of Armenia. This is to make sure they are not impacted by the surrounding financial sanctions.

SP: Weeks after Bolton came and left, the Armenian media and the government are still reacting to what did and didn’t happen, what was offered, talked about. What are we hearing in the Azerbaijani and Georgian media about Bolton’s visit to their countries? What are the conversations there?

ES: The United States is the most important relationship for Georgia, there is not another country that is more important to Georgia. They are much more used to US  attention than say Armenia and or even Azerbaijan. They’ve had US presidents and vice presidents visit Georgia. That hasn’t happened in Armenia, the US did visit Azerbaijan once. So, they are used to these kinds of visits but you can see from the interactions that were happening in Tbilisi with Bolton, that there was a sense of disappointment that while Bolton was in Moscow,  Georgia was not mentioned at all. In general, Georgian issues with Russia are much in the shadows now. In the shadow of events in Syria, events in Iran, even the events in Ukraine don’t frequently make the top tier of US foreign policy agenda. And there is always this jockeying for attention from the United States by small countries and of course Georgia is not excluded. You can also see a concern in Georgia related to domestic politics where the government and the opposition representing the former government of Mikhail Saakashvili are again trying to edge each other for a more favorable US  reaction towards their interests.

The position of Azerbaijan with regards to Iran has been interesting. On the one hand, Azerbaijan has had a tense relationship with Iran. There was one confrontation 17 years ago that almost resulted in a military incident, with two sides shooting at each other over hydro-carbon deposits in the Caspian. But over the past decade we’ve had a much more positive dynamic in Azerbaijan-Iranian relations, particularly with Azerbaijan assisting Iran in curtailing international sanctions. This is prior to the Iran nuclear deal that was concluded with Obama. So, both Azerbaijan and Turkey were very much involved in helping Iran sort of navigate international sanctions.

SP: So, will Bolton’s visit change this?

ES: I think so, I think you could definitely see that happening already. First of all, on the military side they’ve had already a number of interactions with Iranian leadership and instead of a military cooperation, they’ve canceled a visit by the top Iranian general to Azerbaijan that was supposed to happen early October. And there’s talk that they’ve stopped importing Iranian gas and will be refocusing on importing more Russian gas, which they imported to be able to export to Georgia.

They have already taken some steps to curtail some of the more egregious aspects of their cooperation with Iran from Bolton’s perspective, from a US perspective, but at the same time there is a strong relationship that’s there. There is a lot of trade happening, there is a lot of communication happening between the people of Azerbaijan and Iran.

Iran and Azerbaijan have a much more dynamic relationship than say Iran and Armenia. Armenia has a much smaller border, much less traffic of people going back and forth.

And we heard earlier in August that as part of this new round of sanctions, the US . has given a free pass to the major gas project that Azerbaijan is counting on as the main producer of financial flow cords for the next decade. On the one hand, the US  sort of gives Azerbaijan a little bit of a pass, but so that Azerbaijan can visibly curtail the more obvious forms of cooperation with Iran.

Read more:

Karabakh Negotiations Not Priority for Bolton: Emil Sanamyan

Armenia Ready to Discuss Buying Weapons from US


Follow Syuzanna Petrosyan here and Emil Sanamyan here.