OPINION: It’s time for Sen. Bob Menendez to be consistent on Iran | Miller

By Paul Miller/JNS
Originally published May 6, 2020
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Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has long been a diamond in the rough when it comes to Democratic policy towards Iran on Capitol Hill. From working to strengthening sanctions against the regime to voting against the 2015 nuclear deal, he has transcended partisan concerns in efforts to counter Iranian aggression.

Yet cracks in the armor have emerged regarding the New Jersey lawmaker’s stance on Tehran. One warning sign came in 2018, when he criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement that he initially spoke out against so resolutely. But in truth, Menendez has a glaring blind spot on Iran that long precedes the nuclear deal and its aftermath.

On Monday, Menendez led a letter, delivered to Senate Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ranking Member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), that aims to thwart the Trump administration’s sensible reconsideration of U.S. aid to the Armenian-occupied region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Several U.N. resolutions affirm Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and the State Department does not recognize the territory as an independent country.

Given his longtime vocal support of Armenia and the policy positions of its congressional lobby group—the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA)—Menendez’s latest pro-Armenian legislative initiative is not in the least bit surprising. While his partnership with the corruption-riddled ANCA is troubling, that is an issue for another day.

More pressing, it is incumbent upon Menendez to internalize the implications of Tehran’s latest regional power play: the recent delivery of fuel by Iranian trucks to Nagorno-Karabakh, a move that flies in the face of the Islamic Republic’s stated support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

By now, Menendez is no stranger to Iranian doublespeak. He is also well-familiar with the rogue regime’s deep influence over conflicts ranging from Israel and the disputed Palestinian territories, to Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon, to Yemen, and now, to Nagorno-Karabakh. In the latter region, Iran’s support of Armenian separatists and the regime’s broader hidden agenda are now not so hidden.

Iran’s behavior is only one piece of the puzzle. Armenia’s economic empowerment of Iran is a crucial component of the broader empowerment of the Iranians. Last October, Iran attained official membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Russian-led trade alliance of five ex-Soviet republics whose 2019 conference was hosted in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan. As a result of Tehran joining the EAEU, Iranian goods can now be exported to Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia with virtually no tariffs. Armenia, which maintains a flourishing trade relationship with Iran, is the only EAEU member that possesses a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union. Consequently, EAEU membership and the conduit of the Iranian-Armenian border provide Tehran with a backdoor pathway to direct commerce with Europe, undermining the very sanctions that Menendez has worked so tirelessly to enact and uphold.

Hervik Yarijanian, head of Iran-Armenia Chamber of Commerce, has stated outright that “Iran can easily dominate the Eurasia market economically and this can be done via Armenia.”

The EAEU deal neatly aligns with Armenia’s longer history of helping Iran skirt international sanctions, including through Armenian banks reportedly allowing Tehran to obfuscate payments to and from foreign clients. Last year, the United States imposed sanctions on two Armenian companies over their business ties with Tehran. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan makes no secret of this unholy alliance, pledging that his nation is  “faithful” to Iran.

Menendez’s response to these developments has been utter silence. Now, with Tehran’s negligent response to coronavirus marking the regime’s latest threat to the global community, it is time for the senator to come to terms with the fact that empowering Armenia and empowering Iran are one and the same. He cannot allow support for Armenia to create this blind spot on his Iran policy any longer.

Menendez should take a comprehensive look at how Armenia-Iran ties threaten his efforts to counter Iranian aggression. If he speaks out against Iran’s destabilizing activities, then he must also publicly acknowledge Armenia’s disturbing role in that equation. It is time to be consistent.

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Paul Miller is president and executive director of the news and public-policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him on Twitter at @pauliespoint.