By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian said Thursday his three-day official visit to Tehran produced further progress towards the construction of an Iran-Armenia gas pipeline but admitted that the two neighbors still have to agree on several issues before launching the $124 million project.
An agreement on building the pipeline that would pump Iranian natural gas into Armenia was among a dozen documents signed at the end of Kocharian’s trip earlier in the day. But officials accompanying the Armenian leader said that work on the pipeline will not start next year.
“We seem to have reached agreement on starting preparations for the implementation of the project,” Kocharian told Armenian state television on his return from the Iranian capital. He added that “the technical side of the issue,” including unspecified “engineering demands” made by the Armenian side, has not yet been hammered out.
In the words of Energy Minister Armen Movsisian, all “technical documents” needed for the start of the construction work will be ready for signing “before the end of 2002.”
It was not clear whether the two governments have settled their differences over the price of Iranian gas to be imported by Armenia – one of the main reasons why the construction of the 140 kilometer-long pipeline has been repeatedly postponed. Also, the Armenian government has not yet secured external funding for its share of what it considers a strategically important project.
Kocharian reaffirmed Yerevan’s strong interest in the pipeline, saying that it will boost Armenia’s “energy security” by diversifying its sources of energy. Armenia presently imports natural gas only from Russia.
The accords signed during the Armenian-Iranian summit cover cooperation in the fields of civil engineering, energy, the environment, customs and the protection of historic and cultural monuments. The two countries reaffirmed their intention to build a hydro-electrical plan on the river Arax that separates them.
Another major commercial project endorsed by Kocharian and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Khatami, envisages construction of a three-kilometer tunnel under the mountain pass in southeastern Armenia. The Kajaran pass, frequently closed in the winter, is vital for transport communication between Iran and Armenia. The bulk of the construction costs worth $42 million will be covered by the Iranian side, official said.
The Armenian ministry of transport and communications said in a statement on Thursday that work on the project will get underway “no sooner than the end of 2002.”
An official joint statement issued at the end of Kocharian's visit to Iran included a call for a peaceful solution to the problem of Nagorno Karabakh, Agence France Presse reported. Tehran has previously acted as a mediator between Yerevan and Baku, but its relations with the latter have further deteriorated recently over the issue of oil rights in the Caspian Sea.
In addition to his talks with Iran's leaders, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Kocharian also attended a mass in Tehran's Saint Sarkis Cathedral with dignitaries from Iran's 300,000-strong Armenian community.
Iranian sources quoted Khamenei as emphasizing the importance of the relations between the two neighbors and calling for closer cooperation between all regional states. Khamenei also attacked the United States, Iran’s arch-foe, and other major world powers for their perceived interference in regional affairs.
“The transregional powers including the United States are in pursuit of their own interests without taking into account the interests of the regional states,” the Islamic Republic’s top cleric told Kocharian, according to the official IRNA news agency.