Armenia and Iran, bound together by threads of civilization and history, find themselves facing fresh challenges in the evolving regional landscape. Effectively tackling these challenges demands concerted collaboration. Our interview with Professor Vardan Voskanyan, the head of the Chair of Iranian Studies at Yerevan State University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, sheds light on these pressing concerns, exploring strategies to address them and envisaging the potential horizons for the advancement of Armenian-Iranian relations.
Iran Daily: Armenian-Iranian relations have stood the test of time, and a new chapter unfolded after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) war. What current challenges confront both parties and where do their interests align?
Voskanyan: The relations between Armenia and Iran go back to thousands of years ago. It should be noted that these relations fit into the concept of “one civilization, two nations,” “one civilization, two states,” and “one civilization, two religions,” forging a distinctive bond. The Armenian-Iranian border stands as one of the oldest worldwide, emblematic of friendship, brotherhood, and peace, particularly following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the aftermath of the 2020 Azerbaijani aggression has introduced fresh challenges for both Armenia and Iran. Foremost among these is Turkey’s expanding footprint in the South Caucasus, marked by political, military, and economic entanglements with Azerbaijan. This Turkish influence presents formidable obstacles for both the Republic of Armenia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Moreover, Turkey’s involvement within the bounds of Azerbaijan has introduced supplementary challenges across various domains. It is evident that the present-day Erdogan administration pursues a policy aimed at establishing the “Great Turan,” a two-phase initiative involving, first, the establishment of a presence in the territory of Azerbaijan, then, the increase of Turkish influence in the Turkic republics of Central Asia beyond the Caspian Sea. In this sense, the so-called “Turanian Corridor” has become one of the components of this plan. The Turkish presence not only has the context of promoting the Turkish expansionist policy but also significantly refers to Turkey’s membership in NATO. Therefore, these Pan-Turan aspirations also have a NATO component at their core. Consequently, these Pan-Turan aspirations evoke apprehension in both Armenia and Iran.
Another important circumstance should be taken into account. It is obvious that although Baku and Ankara are now actually afraid to speak about Atrpatakan (northwestern provinces of Iran), in their long-term plans there is a clear policy aimed at making this ancient Iranian territory a part of their expansionist plans as well. Equally noteworthy is the notion of “Azerbaijani expansionism” encompassing aggressive policies and military actions aimed at compromising Armenia’s territorial integrity, alongside the comprehensive annexation of the Republic of Artsakh.
In addition to these challenges, it is pertinent to highlight that Baku often does not hide the support and assistance it provides to various terrorist entities inside Iran with the objective of destabilizing Iran’s internal security. This backing extends to terrorist entities in Atrpatakan and other regions. In this regard should be mentioned the 2022 terrorist attack on the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz with its links tracing back to Baku.
Consequently, the current landscape has necessitated a recalibration of Armenian-Iranian relations. Beyond their historical camaraderie, this recalibration primarily centers on the shared threats that have the potential to undermine the security of both nations.
In particular, what are the areas that Yerevan and Tehran should give priority to deepening?
As I previously mentioned, security should serve as the foremost axis around which they should shape a qualitatively new phase of Armenian-Iranian relations. Naturally, these relations should encompass military-political and security facets. In my perspective, the establishment of a collaborative Armenian-Iranian military force holds great potential for effectiveness. This joint force could take the form of a synchronized and coordinated unit, comprising elements from both the Iranian and Armenian militaries.
Secondly, it is extremely important for the military-political component of Armenian-Iranian relations to have an anti-terrorist character as well. It is noteworthy that during the 2020 Azerbaijani aggression in Artsakh, terrorist elements were introduced to our region, with Ankara’s involvement being transparent. Hence, the military-political sphere of Armenian-Iranian relations should encompass the planning and execution of concerted anti-terrorist operations. These operations can be carried out under the supervision and guidance of a jointly established anti-terrorist center, complete with strategic coordination and programming.
Turning to the conventional domains, it is evident that they remain of utmost importance — once again with a focus on security. Significantly elevating the quality of economic relations between Iran and Armenia is paramount. The two nations should strive to enhance the efficiency of their economic interactions, fostering an enduring era of collaboration. In essence, both states can make substantial strides toward economic integration, thereby laying a robust economic foundation that bolsters the overarching security framework.
What internal and external obstacles do you see in the development of bilateral relations? What steps are needed to eliminate them?
In the realm of bilateral relations, significant obstacles stem from both internal and external sources. If we address the internal impediments, it would become apparent that further steadfast will is required within Armenia to foster multilateral ties with Iran. This determination must assume a strategic character, effectively endowing relations with Iran with a privileged status within Armenia’s security strategy. Elevating this relationship to a level of strategic aspiration or significance across all dimensions is imperative.
There are also certain challenges within Iran itself. Notably, one of the principal hindrances, in my view, arises from the activities of various pan-Turkic lobby groups. While these groups may not hold positions at the upper echelons of the Iranian government, they nonetheless manage to introduce certain obstacles at intermediate and lower levels, hindering the advancement of Armenian-Iranian relations.
Concerning external barriers, it is evident that nations harboring adversarial stances toward both Iran and Armenia could express substantial reservations about the deepening and heightened strategic nature of these relations. Hence, external obstacles do wield significance. However, a crucial aspect must be borne in mind: neither internal nor external impediments can preclude the elevation of Armenian-Iranian relations to the sought-after aspirational or strategic level. Such relations emanate from the vital security interests of both nations. Consequently, it is incumbent upon both sides to capitalize on all available avenues, ensuring that Armenian-Iranian relations firmly embody the aspirational or strategic nature underscored earlier.
In addition to governmental cooperation, what role should the scientific and expert communities of both sides, as well as representatives of civil society, play?
Over centuries, the Armenian and Iranian peoples have exemplified exceptional fraternal and amicable relations within our region. As I highlighted at the outset of this interview, I firmly believe that we are products of the same civilizational sphere. Armenians and Iranians, along with Armenia and Iran as states, represent two advanced and cultured societies that find themselves confronting hostile and uncivilized elements within our region, whose aim is to propagate terrorism, undermine the internal and external security of Armenia and Iran, and ultimately erase our civilizations from the regional map. This is a complex and far-reaching agenda, which necessitates not only the active engagement of politicians but also places a significant responsibility on the intellectual class within both nations. The scientific community, in particular, possesses a pivotal role, as does the sector devoted to what is often termed “people’s diplomacy”.
In my view, the cornerstone of this people’s diplomacy should center on the ideological framework of “one civilization, two nations,” “one civilization, two states,” “one civilization, two religions,” and “one civilization, two languages”. Within this framework, gradual deepening of relations and cooperation across scientific, academic, cultural, and broader civilizational spheres should transpire. It is within this cultural realm that a fertile ground for the advancement of political, military-political, and economic ties can be cultivated.
This civilizational realm holds the potential to engender an atmosphere within both societies that wields influence over political decisions. This civilizational domain should formulate the vision that is appropriate to the concept of forming a civilizational alliance between the two states and peoples with such ancient civilizational roots. This civilizational domain is of paramount significance, and considerable effort needs to be channeled into its development. Therefore, diligent work in this direction should be actively promoted with state backing and sponsorship, amplifying the potential for even more effective cultural, civilizational, scientific, and academic cooperation between the two nations.