Bolton vows To ‘squeeze Iran,’ explore weapons sales to Armenia

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Harry Tamrazian and Ron Synovitz, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

YEREVAN – U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton has vowed that President Donald Trump’s administration will “squeeze Iran” with maximum economic pressure in response to Teheran’s “malign” behavior in the Middle East and around the world.

Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, right, meets U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton in Yerevan on October 25. /

Bolton made the remarks in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL on October 25 after he met in Yerevan with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

“As I explained to the prime minister, we want to put maximum pressure on Iran because it has not given up the pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Bolton told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “It remains the world’s central banker of international terrorism. And we’re concerned about its ballistic-missile programs and its active conventional military operations in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere.”

Bolton said Washington doesn’t want to “cause damage to our friends in the process” of expanding sanctions against Iran, which shares a border with Armenia.

He said that’s why he “stressed” to Pashinian, in advance, that the Trump administration is “going to enforce these sanctions very vigorously” and that the Armenian-Iranian border is “going to be a significant issue.”

“We are going to squeeze Iran because we think their behavior in the Middle East and, really globally, is malign and needs to be changed,” Bolton said.

Bolton’s talks with Pashinian came a day after the U.S. national-security adviser met in Baku with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov — vowing that Washington will continue to support a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Baku and Yerevan over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Bolton said he and Pashinian “talked a lot, obviously, about Nagorno-Karabakh,” and that he is aware of the economic difficulties Armenia faces as a result of the “geographical situation and historical antecedents” related to the conflict.

Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan remain closed as a result of their ongoing conflict over the mainly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh — a region seized by Armenian-backed separatists who declared independence amid a 1988-1994 war that killed at least 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Internationally mediated negotiations with the involvement of the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group — co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States — have failed to resolve the dispute.

Turkey, in solidarity with Azerbaijan, also has closed its border with Armenia.

Thus, if Yerevan adheres to U.S. sanctions against Iran, Armenia would have only Georgia as a neighboring trading partner — raising concerns in Yerevan about how Russian pressure against Tbilisi would impact Armenia.

Bolton said those “current circumstances highlight” the importance of Armenia and Azerbaijan “finding a mutually satisfactory agreement to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.”

“Once that happened, then the Armenian-Azerbaijani border would open,” Bolton said. “The Turkish border, I believe, would almost certainly open. And I think the border with Georgia might be less subject to concern about what pressure the Russians may be putting them under.”

Bolton told RFE/RL that Washington has wanted to be “of whatever assistance we could be behind the scenes, as well as one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, to see if we could help facilitate a solution between Armenia and Azerbaijan that would be mutually agreeable to both.”

“We recognized the obvious difficulties there, but we just felt that [Pashinian] was in an excellent position here in Armenia, and would be after the elections [in early December], to show leadership on that,” Bolton said.

Bolton also said the Trump administration wants to “look at” possibilities of weapons sales to Armenia that would not violate restrictions the U.S. Congress has imposed.

“We have restrictions Congress has imposed on the United States in terms of [weapons] sales to Azerbaijan and Armenia because of the [Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict, but there are exceptions to that,” Bolton explained.

“As I said to the prime minister, if it’s a question of buying Russian military equipment versus buying U.S. military equipment, we’d prefer the latter,” he said. “We think our equipment is better than the Russians’ anyway. So we want to look at that. And I think it increases Armenia’s options when it’s not entirely dependent on one major power.”

He also said Armenia’s “excellent” prospects for becoming a “stable democracy” are “really fundamental to Armenia exercising its full sovereignty and not being dependent on — or subject to — excessive foreign influence.”

Bolton also noted that a large community of Armenian-American citizens in the United States makes the “prospects for closer economic cooperation” with the U.S. private sector “very real” and “much better for the long term than government-to-government assistance.”

“I think this is a time to be optimistic that Armenia can emerge more on the world stage,” Bolton said, stressing that the Trump administration “considers the South Caucasus a very important area strategically” and that improving relations with Armenia is “a very high priority.”