Over the past several years, Iran has received most of the world’s nuclear non-proliferation attention.
While the Obama administration (and the rest of the world) focuses on whether or not Tehran will fulfill its commitments, we may have missed other nuclear red flags that demand the world’s immediate attention. No, not the permanently troubled North Korea, but Iran’s neighbor and long-time regional buddy, Armenia.
At a press conference on April 29 in Armenia, MP Hrant Bagratyan, a former prime minister, claimed that Armenia has nuclear weapons. A recording of his talk was later released by the Media Center, an Armenian NGO.
“We have the ability to create nuclear weapons,” Bagratyan told journalists, adding, “We have nuclear weapons.”
The press conference came following an earlier speech to parliament during which Bagratyan urged the creation of nuclear weapons to prevent “further attacks and aggression” from neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan.
“There is no alternative, we have to protect ourselves,” he said.
Fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia started more than 30 years ago, in the late 1980s. It escalated into a full-fledged war in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.
More than 30,000 people were killed before a cease-fire was instituted in 1994. Since then, sporadic, unenthusiastic and ineffective efforts have been made by the Minsk Group – co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States – to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Battles have erupted periodically between the two sides, most recently in early April when Armenian positions fired intensive artillery barrages at nearby Azerbaijani positions and residential areas.
The UN Security Council has recognized Azerbaijan’s right to this territory with Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884, among others. Armenia has continued to ignore the resolutions. Turkey supports Azerbaijan.
Bagratyan’s statements were in response to the recent escalation, which killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians.
As such, the comments could easily be cast aside as angry rhetoric. Nonetheless, why did so few news sources – particularly so few outside of the immediate geographic area – fail to report the statements? The world should not be so eager to let the comments slip.
On April 18, just days before Bagratyan’s statements, the Georgian State Security Service arresting three Armenian nationals and three citizens of Georgia for attempting to illegally sell roughly $200 million of weapons-grade uranium 238.
This recent arrest was not the first. Arrests of Armenians who have crossed into neighboring Georgia have increased in the past two years, according to an article published last month by The World Post (a partnership publication of The Huffington Post), causing alarm among nuclear non-proliferation experts in the US and elsewhere. Landlocked Armenians use Georgia for access to the Black Sea ports, which could be used to traffic nuclear material to the Middle East or anywhere else.
Since 2014, the World Post reported, eight Armenians have been arrested for attempting to smuggle and/or sell nuclear materials in Georgia. In January 2016, three Armenians were arrested for attempting to bring cesium 137 across the border. In August 2014, two Armenians were arresting for the same thing.
These arrests come amid reports by intelligence officials that Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups are trying to obtain materials to build a “dirty bomb,” which they could explode in Europe, the United States or Israel.
Someone who would be willing to put the lives of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people at risk to make money is both appalling and unfathomable.
What’s more is that we don’t know from exactly where these Armenians are getting the nuclear materials. Until now, it was assumed that Armenia possesses no nuclear weapons and that the country “attaches great importance to universal application and effective implementation of all treaties and regimes, dealing with non-proliferation,” as its foreign ministry reports on its website.
We did know that Armenia has a nuclear power plant at Metsamor, which was built in 1970, ceased operations in 1988 and then resumed work in 1995. Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu, vice president of the Turkish Analytical Center for Strategic Outlook, in an interview with Trend News Agency said that according to ecologists, seismic activity in this area makes operations at Metsamor nuclear power plant extremely dangerous – but there is no evidence the material came from there. Multiple reports, including those by The Telegraph and World Report, indicate that it might have come from Novosibirk in Siberia, but they are not confirmed.
Armenia’s claim of a nuclear weapon – if one can constitute Bagratyan’s statements as such – will create legal and political problems for the country. Azerbaijan and Turkey will both need to deal with the legal and security ramifications of this statement immediately.
And the international community, too, should clarify what Bagratyan meant. If he did mean that the country has nuclear weapons, how Armenia obtained them and who helped it get them is important information.
It seems that either MP Bagratyan decided to no longer pretend even formally that Armenia is independent from Russia and in essence claimed “ownership” of Moscow’s nukes, or this is a major international incident that could put Armenia in the same category as North Korea. Even if Bagratyan’s comments were spawned by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (i.e. highly irresponsible rhetoric), the nuclear claim takes the conversation to an entirely new level.
For years, Israelis were rightly alarmed by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, even as his words were often dismissed as outlandish.
Given all the recent arrests of Armenian smugglers, Bagratyan’s words seem much more scary than unlikely.
While it would be wrong to raise massive alarms just yet, the world must take note of the dangerous games being played by Armenian officials with the nuclear issue.The author is director of international communications for a leading Israeli think tank, a former Jerusalem Post breaking news editor and former editor-in-chief of The Baltimore Jewish Times.