Armenian-Iranian relations: from Aryan fraternity to political pragmatism

Armenian-Iranian relations: from Aryan fraternity to political pragmatism

By Ilgar Majidli, Ph.D. in Political Science

In Iran and Armenia, there has long been an opinion, usually expressed in the phrase:” We are close peoples, we were separated only by religion. ” Nevertheless, there is something that has always united and continues to unite the Iranians and Armenians – this is their Indo-European relationship. The genetic origins of Iranians and Armenians are lost in the mists of time. The latest research has established that the ancestral home of the Aryans is the Armenian Highlands. This circumstance even more convincingly speaks in favor of the assumption that the Iranians and Armenians are kindred peoples, living side by side for millennia. On this basis, Armenians and Iranians have found rational approaches to mutual understanding and cooperation. ”            Amayak Martirosyan, candidate of historical sciences, researcher of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia.

“There is no such force in the world that can embroil our peoples. Our peoples are connected by ancient history and culture, today we must strengthen our relations. Whatever happens, Iran will always be next to Armenia ”            Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In Iran and Armenia, there has long been an opinion, usually expressed in the phrase: “We are close peoples, we are separated by religion.” However, there is something that has always united and continues to unite Iranians and Armenians. This is their Indo-European, or Aryan (Eastern Aryan) relationship. In Armenian historiography, the prevailing opinion is that the genetic origins of the Iranians (refers to the Iranian-speaking population of modern Iran) and Armenians are lost in the mists of time. The ancestral home of the Aryans was a region roughly corresponding to the Armenian Highlands and this circumstance speaks in favor of the assumption that the Iranians and Armenians are kindred peoples, living side by side for thousands of years. At the same time, there are indications of the antiquity, archaism of the Armenian pagan religion. Speaking about the pantheons of the gods of Armenians and Iranians, academician G. Sargsyan notes that “Hayk, Aram, Ara the Beautiful, Tork, Astgi and other names are those samples from the oldest words of the pagan religion and beliefs of Armenians, which show that even before Armenian pagan pantheon, which consisted of the gods Aramazd, Vakhakna, Anahit, Mihra and others who bore Iranian toponyms, the Armenians had an initial even more ancient pantheon, the product of their most ancient distinctive spiritual culture, revealing links with the ancient Eastern – Urartian, Hittite, Assyrian, etc. сultures – gods with Iranian names on Armenian basis appear in a transformed form, acquiring local national features, which here, for example, was revered, in contrast to the single Iranian Ahura – Mazda, as many as four different Aramazds, that there was no dualism inherent in the Iranian religion – the idea of an eternal struggle between good and evil, together with the embodiment of the latter – Ancho – Manyu – Ahriman “. Armenian researchers trace the connection between the Armenian Anahit and the Iranian Anahitta, similar to the links of the Iranian Mihra with the Indo-Aryan Mithra, the Armenian Vahagn, and the Indian Agni. In the VI century. BC. Persians enter the political arena in Iran. In 553, their leader from the Achaemenid tribe Cyrus II the Great, having defeated the Medes, founded the Persian state and the Achaemenid dynasty. According to information from Xenophon’s “Kyropedia”, Cyrus’ campaigns were attended by his friend, the Armenian prince Tigran. The name of Armenia – Armina is indicated in the inscription carved on the Bisutun rock of the Achaemenid king Darius I. Under the Parthians, religious differences between Iranians and Armenians began to make themselves felt. During the Hellenistic period, the Armenian pantheon changed: the Greek gods Zeus (Aramazd), Apollo (Tire), Artemis (Anahit), Hercules (Vahagn), and others seemed to grow together with the local gods.

The separation of the Armenians from the Iranians in religious terms significantly deepened with the coming to power in Iran of the Sassanid dynasty (224–651). Nevertheless, Christianity in Armenia was for some time delayed in its spread by the Sassanids, who tried to force Zoroastrianism. However, in the 4th century, Christianity was adopted as the state religion in Armenia. In the 60s of the 4th century, the Sassanid king Shapur II wreaked havoc in Armenia: he destroyed a number of its cities and took tens of thousands of prisoners to Iran. In 387, the statehood of Armenia was suppressed as a result of its division between the Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Iran. In the mid 7th century, as a result of the Arab occupation, Iran lost its state independence and the Zoroastrian faith. Islam was spread in Iran. Afterward, two centuries of Arab rule followed by a thousand-year Turkic rule were established in Iran. The coming to power in Iran of Shah Reza-Pahlavi, who pursued a Pan-Iranian nationalist policy calling himself “the sun of the Aryans (Aryamehr)”, opened a new page in the life of the Armenians of Iran. The Shah endowed the Armenians with special privileges: Armenians held the highest positions in political, economic, and cultural spheres. Under the Shah, the number of Armenians in Tehran doubled, Pahlavi ruler pursued a policy of resettling Armenians from the northern and southern regions to the capital.

Churches and schools were erected in Tehran, new newspapers and magazines were opened, Armenians were represented in the country’s parliament. The Islamic Revolution in Iran did not have a strong impact on the position of the Armenian community. Modern Iran is home to 200 thousand ethnic Armenians. Most of them live in the very capital of Iran – Tehran. Today, representatives of the Armenian community are also represented in the country’s parliament, moreover, unlike other representatives of national minorities in Iran, Armenians have the right to freely, without any restrictions, profess their own religion.

There are about 200 Armenian churches and about 30 Armenian schools throughout the country. Some universities have departments of the Armenian language and culture. In Iran, books and magazines are published in Armenian; theatrical, cultural, sports societies, and the Armenian Club are actively working. Armenian churches are protected by law, and the “Saint Thaddeus Complex” is included in the UNESCO list of international cultural heritage. In the text of the Iranian Constitution, Armenians appear as “millet” or “raya” – a religious minority, which can be interpreted as an “Armenian national minority”.

The organization “Union of Industrialists-Armenians of Iran” participates in supporting small and medium-sized businesses in Iran. Not so long ago, Russian orientalist Karine Gevorgyan reported that a young Armenian woman was appointed head of the financial department of the Iranian national oil company in 2018. In the geopolitical situation that emerged after the collapse of the USSR – the absence of a direct border with Russia, the violation of the former economic and transport links with it; instability of Georgia as a partner, transit territory, buffer state; the presence of a strategic union of Azerbaijan and Turkey, etc. – one of the imperatives for Armenia was the rapprochement and development of relations with Iran. The steps taken by Armenia towards rapprochement were taken for granted in Iran. Moreover, they came in handy for Iran which seized the opportunity to get out of the state of isolation in which it found itself at the behest of the United States. Iran attaches great importance to the role of Armenia as a connecting link on the intermediate, about the North-South and West-East axes, the Iran-Armenia-Georgia axis.

For Iran, access to the Black Sea means access to Russia, as well as to Europe. The rapprochement between Armenia and Iran has borne fruit. The latter began to pursue a “velvet” policy towards Armenia. Iran’s pragmatism manifested itself in closer cooperation with Armenia, in supporting Armenia in issues of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, etc. Iran’s cooperation with Armenia in the economic field has filled a certain gap in Russian-Armenian relations. Weakened economically, Russia was unable to fully meet the needs of Armenia in food, raw materials, and materials.

In these conditions, exacerbated by the blockade of Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, Iran, in a sense, replaced Russia as a supplier for Armenia of basic necessities, energy resources, etc. Russia began to play an active role in relations between Armenia and Iran since 1993. It was from that time that the importance of the economic and military-political axis Russia-Iran increased, in which Armenia occupied its niche. Russia’s policy towards Iran and Armenia is in line with its global strategic goals. 

By the traditional course of “movement to warm seas” at this stage becomes a priority for Russia (compared to Mediterranean and Far Eastern directions). In these plans, Iran and Armenia are assigned an important role as countries continentally adjacent to Russia. From the position of the Iranian side, reliance on Russia and Armenia allows Iran to resist the United States, which is pursuing a policy of its isolation.

For Iran, Russia and Armenia are unblocking corridors to the outside world. Today the relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Islamic Republic of Iran can be safely called strategic. Iran became the second state, after the United States, to recognize the independence of Armenia. In the most difficult period for the country, during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, food, and fuel came to Armenia from Iran. The Armenian political establishment has always welcomed Iran’s position on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia supports Iran in the international arena. 

Even though Armenia receives millions of dollars in aid from the United States and the European Union, it has consistently voted against the imposition of sanctions against Iran. Iran, in turn, is not averse to using the services of the influential Armenian lobby in the United States and Europe. In the current conditions, when Armenia is being blocked by Azerbaijan and Turkey, the importance of Iran is colossal not only in terms of diversifying energy sources but also in a political sense. 

In March 2007, with the participation of the Presidents of Armenia and Iran Robert Kocharian and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an official ceremony of opening the pipeline took place. On the same day, after the inauguration of the pipeline, the “Agreement between the Government of Armenia and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on cooperation in the construction and operation of hydroelectric power plants on the Araks River” was signed.

In June 2008, a conference entitled “Two nations, two cultures, and two religions” was held at the Yerevan Matenadaran Institute of Ancient Manuscripts. 

At the conference, the Iranian Ambassador to Armenia Muhammad Reisi, commenting on the relations between the two states, noted: “Armenians and Iranians have proved in their history that two peoples professing two divine religions – Christianity and Islam, lived together in conditions of absolute peace and quiet. Iran highly appreciates the rich culture of the Armenian people, for over 50 years the department of the Armenian language and literature has been operating at Isfahan University.

Moreover, there are Armenian schools, publishing houses and other cultural institutions in Iran. ” Hasan Akhtari, head of Iranian organization “Ahli-beyt” within his visit to Yerevan in November 2015 at the invitation of II Garegin, the leader of the Armenian Church, spoke at Yerevan University where he stated that Armenians and Iranians are kindred peoples. Akhtari’s thesis about the kinship of Armenians and Iranians was brought to its logical conclusion by Aram Simonyan, the rector of Yerevan University, who characterized the relations between Iran and Armenia as follows: “One nation – two states”.