Iran, Armenians and Armenia
Iran loves to play the card of the strong and mighty benefactor who should not be crossed. In fact, it is vulnerable and desperate for any friendship it can have
The news that the Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar will be visiting Armenia mid-January might come as a surprise to some. Yet, Iran has always seen its Armenian population as well as its links with Armenia as an important asset.
Armenians are the most favoured and relatively privileged of all non-Muslim communities in Iran today. It is tricky to establish the exact number of ethno-religious minorities in the country since the official numbers are politically shaped and minority communities guard such details and often are not clear themselves.
However, various sources estimate that there are around 300,000 Baha'is, 110,000 Armenian Orthodox, 13,000 Asyrian, Greek and Armenian Catholics as well as 10,000 Greek and Assyrian Orthodox Christians. In addition, there are somewhere from 10,000 to 20,000 Protestants and Evangelicals, most of whom are first generation Muslim converts to Christian faith. While Iran regularly speaks of a sizeable Jewish community of more than 10,000, in actuality, their numbers are now thought to be in hundreds and they live their lives in shadows.
The largest non-Muslim community in the country, Baha'is, face an aggressive policy of extinction. Iran denies them every human right imaginable from denial of education and economic opportunities to denial of holding religious services and regularly detains and imprisons community leaders and activists on fatal charges of espionage and national security.
Similarly, Muslim-background Christians are regularly detained and threatened with the death penalty and often released after paying hefty bails and turning over the deeds of their houses.
In contrast, Armenians are allowed to live relatively untouched. They have full freedom of worship and can consume alcohol and hold social events in designated clubs. They have schools for their children and by and large have not been the victims of the brutal regime. There are two seats reserved for Armenians at the Iranian Parliament.
However, just because Armenians do not suffer the same level of abuse as other religious minorities does not mean that their lives are a sunny walk in the park.
Throughout the years, Armenian clubs have been raided, Armenian businessmen and families have been threatened by police and members of Basij seeking to get extortionate bribes. In Armenian schools, they are not allowed to teach Armenian culture, religion or language at adequate levels and schools include Muslim directors and staff members.
Most disturbingly, the text books that are used in the religious education classes are written by the Iranian ministry of education and rather than enabling Armenian children learn about their faith, they are coerced into Islamic thought by text books citing the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammed without ever stating what the Holy Book or who the Prophet that is being cited are.
Ironically, Ahmedinejad has allowed more hours of Armenian language teaching and granted significant state funds to enable Iranian Armenians to partake in international cultural exchanges and especially with Armenia.
But receiving Ahmedinejad's blessings have a price tag, of course. Helping Armenians is seen as a public diplomacy tool which enables a good word about his regime in Latin America, France and US. Ahmedinejad regularly uses the state of their welfare to bolster his image as a benevolent and tolerant leader.
Good treatment of Armenians in Iran also opens the door for economic engagement with the diaspora’s homeland. As sanctions hit Iran more and more, it desperately needs partners that can be a market for Iranian products but most importantly can supply Iran with needed goods and be a middle-man for some not-so-straightforward financial transactions.
Armenia too, suffering from the blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey, needs a way out of the over dependence to the Georgian border and the taxes and vulnerabilities that come with it.
So when the Iranian minister arrives in Yerevan, he will be cautiously but warmly welcomed. What is at stake for Armenians is the vulnerable lives of more than 100,000 compatriots living in the country and the desperate needs of the Armenian economy.
While Iran loves to play the card of the strong and mighty benefactor who should not be crossed. In fact, it is vulnerable and desperate for any friendship it can have.
Ziya Meral is a Turkish writer and academic. He tweets @Ziya_Meral
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