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April 22, 2020 6:18 am

Beware of Dictatorships and Rogue Regimes During Coronavirus

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avatar by Paul Miller


Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, wearing face masks as protection against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), meet in Damascus, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on April 20, 2020. Photo: SANA/Handout via REUTERS.

With the world firmly in the grips of COVID-19, the pandemic has exposed how authoritarian and rogue regimes are cracking down even harder on their people, while purportedly outright lying about the threat of the virus.

Much has been publicized about the bleak situation in Iran concerning the coronavirus; there are major concerns about how honest the Islamic Republic has been about its response and its government’s alleged negligence in allowing COVID-19 to spread.

Yet its struggles with the virus have not stopped Iran’s typically aggressive regional behavior. Most recently, Iranian trucks delivered fuel to the Armenian-occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The move belies the Tehran regime’s longstanding claims of its support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

In Russia, the coronavirus situation initially puzzled many experts and foreign observers due to the small amount of reported infections and deaths, especially compared to the tens of thousands infected across Asia, Europe, and the US. President Vladimir Putin regularly downplayed the virus’s threat to the country, giving assurances that the situation was “under control” and the country would be able to deal with the virus without major disruption.

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But that has all changed, with Russian authorities now locking down major cities across the world’s largest country by landmass. There are even concerns that Putin himself may have been exposed to the virus.

Similarly, Syria made dubious claims about its ability to combat the virus until it announced its first COVID-19 death on March 30. Many experts have feared that the virus could ravage the civil war-stricken country with “devastating impact.”

Russia, Syria, and Iran are all staunch allies of Armenia. While there have not been similar questions raised over Armenia’s response to the coronavirus, the former Soviet republic is well-known for its close ties with all three countries; this should be squarely on America’s radar as it assesses its global relationships during these fraught times.

Armenia has long faced criticism over its alliances with rogue and authoritarian regimes. Last year, despite the objections of the US and many others in the international community, Armenia partnered with Russia on Moscow’s military mission in Syria. While it is not surprising that a small, landlocked country like Armenia would need to cozy up to hegemons like Russia and Iran, its apparent backing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime should raise alarm. This friendship was on full display recently, when the Syrian parliament unanimously voted in February that it “condemns and recognizes the genocide committed against the Armenians by the Ottoman state at the start of the twentieth century.”

The irony of such as statement coming from a regime like Syria’s, which is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths of its own people, including the use of chemical weapons and other war crimes, is not to be understated.

Armenia’s ties with Iran have also been something of an Achilles’ heel for Yerevan amid the pandemic. Iran is the sixth-largest trading partner of Armenia and a crucial link for the landlocked country to the global economy. Armenia had been hesitant to fully restrict travel and trade with Iran, despite the raging pandemic in the Islamic Republic.

An instructive test case on Iran-Armenia ties comes from Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) — one of the rare Democratic Iran hawks on Capitol Hill, yet a vocal supporter of Armenia. Menendez, backed by the Armenian lobby, is currently circulating a Senate letter that aims to thwart the Trump administration’s efforts to cut US aid to Nagorno-Karabakh (which the State Department does not recognize as an independent country). Why does Menendez, given his goal of curbing Iranian aggression, turn a blind eye to Yerevan’s close relationship with Tehran?

Yerevan’s rogue relationships should represent a significant consideration for not only the US, which pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and has consistently taken steps to curb Iranian aggression under the Trump administration, but also Israel, the nation that Iran repeatedly vows to wipe off the map.

Armenia last year announced plans to open an embassy in Israel, while Armenian and Israeli specialists have started to collaborate on the response to COVID-19. Yet before further bilateral engagement regarding the pandemic, Jerusalem should assess the full spectrum of Yerevan’s foreign policies, including Armenian ties with Syria and Iran.

In these uncertain times, strategic and mutually beneficial alliances between leaders and nations are more critical than ever. The US and Israel should surely take Armenia’s rogue ties into account as they shape their responses to the pandemic.

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

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