(March 18, 2015 / JNS)
Historically, Jerusalem has played the role of a coveted possession in the geopolitical calculations of many regional and global powers. International religious rivalries over access and ownership of the Israeli capital’s holy sites continue unabated. The status of the Old City of Jerusalem and those holy places also presents one of the thorniest issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The latest installment in this long-drawn drama involves the Republic of Armenia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Armenian leadership’s cancellation of a planned visit to Jerusalem in February 2010 by then-prime minister Tigran Sargsyan provided a cause for concern and puzzlement for the Israeli government that persists to this day.
Until recently, the Armenian government had not sent a single delegation to Israel since the cancellation of Sargsyan’s visit. In contrast, an Armenian neighbor, the Muslim-majority Republic of Azerbaijan, has sent a series of top-level delegations, including cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
In what was reportedly a bit of damage control, on March 5, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandyan arrived in Israel for what the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs described as a “private visit.” It was reported that Nalbandyan promoted a decidedly anti-Turkish and anti-Azeri agenda. Nalbandyan received a less-than-warm welcome due to the well-documented and increasing wave of anti-Semitism in the Armenian media as well as the prolific state-sponsored anti-Israel propaganda that makes Armenia such a darling of Iran.
What really caused the cancellation of the visit of Armenian prime minister Sargsyan to Israel? Interestingly, in mid-February 2010, Yerevan notified Israel that Sargsyan had become ill with the flu and was unable to travel. Other diplomatic sources in Jerusalem noted that the flu struck the Armenian prime minister in “a strange manner after a meeting with the advisor of Iranian President Mehdi Mostafavi.” Nearly at the same time as the Armenian official trip, the Iranian ambassador in Yerevan, Seyed Ali Sagayan, announced that the Islamic Republic would act as an intermediary, promoting the normalization process between Armenia and Turkey. This was preceded by a visit to Tehran of then-Armenian minister of transport and communication Manuk Vardanyan, who oversaw a number of bilateral strategic projects, an invitation to the defense minister of Armenia to Iran, and the arrival in Yerevan of a head of the Iranian diplomatic delegation.
According to information received in Jerusalem, Tehran feared that the Israelis would try to negotiate with the head of the Armenian government about the tacit cooperation on the Iranian issue. Although Iran remains a major regional partner of Yerevan, no less important for the Armenians is their position in Jerusalem at the city’s holy sites.
The Jerusalem Patriarchate of the Armenian Apostolic Church controls many Christian shrines in the city (including a part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem (where about 2,500 people live) is the spiritual center for the influential Armenian diaspora in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. This quarter is even called the key to the “Armenian factor” of Middle East politics. For Armenians, these places are particularly sensitive because of the long-term confrontation with the Greeks regarding control over the Jerusalem sites. In resolving a number of conflicts between the Armenians and Greeks, the Israeli authorities, in particular the Ministry of Religious Affairs, plays a critical role. On such matters, Israeli state agencies prefer to remain neutral.
But recently, representatives of the Armenian Church began to express fears that amid the crisis with Turkey, Israel had decided to strengthen the partnership with Greece, and by consequence the Israeli government may prefer the Greeks in the conflict over Jerusalem’s holy sites. It is significant that less than a month before the announcement of the visit of the Armenian prime minister to Israel, one of Jerusalem’s priests, Step Karapetyan, stated publicly, “Holy Mount Zion to the Jews actually is in the possession of the Armenian community and the Israeli government is implementing a systematic policy to force Armenians out. Armenia as the state did not oppose this policy.” He further noted that “in such circumstances, conflicts and collisions will occur and further, because the problem is not only religious but also political and geopolitical conditions.”
The Iranians reportedly feared that in exchange for some assistance in the matter of holy places, Sarkisian would agree to tacit cooperation on subjects of strategic importance for Tehran, according to Israeli diplomats. The Armenians quickly backed down under pressure from Iran.
The Iranian regime has never ceased to support Armenia in its megalomaniac policy of occupation of the sovereign Azeri territory. Recently, on behalf of Armenia, a blatant attack on an Azeri senior diplomat—Baku’s ambassador to Washington, Elin Suleymanov—was aired in the Azeri language by the official Islamic Republic of Iran broadcaster Radio Tabriz. The Iranian broadcast used egregious lies in accusing Suleymanov of “lobbying activities against Armenia in Washington, DC.” The Iranians used a classical anti-Semitic ruse by calling any diplomat who has healthy relationship with Jewish people, especially American Jewry, a “secret agent” of Zionists. The broadcast contained a ridiculous accusation against the Azeri ambassador of being “Azerbaijan’s Jewish politician and promoter of the Zionist regime in [Azeri President] Ilham Aliyev’s government.” The broadcast added, “This Jewish politician does his best to work for the benefit of American and Zionist regime, not for Azerbaijani state and its people.”
The mullah-controlled regime in Tehran manifests a growing concern over the invigoration of relations between Israel, Azerbaijan, and the states of Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan. The Iranians fear that the Israeli strategy of containing the Islamic Republic—which thankfully continues to stall the P5+1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program—is gaining momentum, while Armenia is still suffering from the Iranian flu.
Alexander Murinson, Ph.D., a researcher for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, also serves on the International Advisory Board of Outre-Terre (European Geopolitical Review), a French-language scholarly journal. He is the author of various articles and books, including the “European Journal of Geopolitics,” “Turkey’s Entente with Israel,” and “Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Caucasus.”