Photo: Iranian Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf
By Emil Danielyan
Armenia and Iran announced on Thursday plans to deepen their cooperation in the area of energy, in a move which they said will cement their close political and economic ties. The Armenian and Iranian energy ministers said the two neighboring countries will expand their seasonal swap of electricity and will press ahead with the joint construction of a major hydro-electric power plant.
Officials also said that Tehran and Yerevan are now close to starting work on a strategic pipeline that would carry Iranian and Turkmen natural gas into Armenia.
"The scope and areas of our cooperation are very broad. We are step by step deepening that cooperation and thus moving forward," Iranian Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf said at the end of his three-day official visit to Armenia. Speaking at a joint news conference with his Armenian counterpart, Armen Movsisian, Bitaraf said the Islamic Republic is strongly interested in the success of joint energy projects with Armenia, viewing them as a key element of its policy toward the South Caucasus.
"Mr. Bitaraf's visit marked the beginning of a very fruitful work, and I believe that this cooperation is beneficial for both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Armenia," Movsisian said for his part.
The two men, in a separate joint memorandum said that they have agreed to increase the volume of mutual power supplies and reaffirmed plans to construct a power plant on the river Arax which marks the border between the two countries. Feasibility studies on the $35 million project have been underway for the last several months. Energy officials are still discussing cost-effective technical parameters of the would-be plant, and no approximate dates for the start of its construction have been set yet.
The seasonal exchange of electricity was launched in 1998 and, according to official figures, has since totaled 1.3 billion kilowatt/hours or roughly $40 million. Armenia imports electricity from Iran in the winter when its hydro-electric power plants run low on water. Iran, by contrast, needs additional energy during its hot summer months and receives much of it from Armenia.
The scheme will be substantially expanded after the opening next month of a new power exchange facility in the Armenian town of Agarak near the Iranian border. A new high-voltage transmission line which is currently under construction in southeastern Armenia will also serve the same purpose.
Both Agarak and the future Arax plants are located in the strategically important Meghri district which has recently been the subject of speculations about a possible territorial exchange between Armenia and Azerbaijan as part of the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenian officials deny Azerbaijani claims that they were ready last year to exchange Meghri with Karabakh and the Lachin corridor.
Meanwhile, President Robert Kocharian told Bitaraf on Wednesday that the energy cooperation should become an "engine" of Armenian-Iranian economic ties. Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian likewise noted at a meeting with the Iranian minister that Yerevan and Tehran are motivated by "common regional interests" in their drive to strengthen bilateral relations.
Iran has maintained close ties with Armenia ever since the 1991 Soviet collapse and followed a largely neutral line on the latter's conflict with Muslim Azerbaijan. Many analysts believe that that policy epitomizes the pragmatic, rather than religious or ideological, nature of the Islamic Republic's foreign policy.
Tehran and Yerevan, for example, are believed to share the common strategic interest of limiting Turkey's presence in the region. They both have strained relations with Ankara, Azerbaijan's closest ally.
The United States, which accuses Iran of being part of a global "axis of evil" has recently signaled its unease over the growing Armenian-Iranian links. A senior U.S. diplomat urged the Armenian leadership last May to back America's efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction and supporting "international terrorism." The call was followed by the unexpected imposition of U.S. sanctions against an Armenian biochemical firm and businessman accused of transferring sensitive equipment to Iran.
Armenian officials have pledged to address the U.S. concerns and claim to have already tightened export controls at the country's main border crossings. But they have stressed that the U.S. sanctions were imposed on private Armenian entities and will not affect the inter-state relationship with Iran.
The deputy head of the Armenian diplomatic mission in Tehran, Grigor Arakelian, told RFE/RL on Thursday that the two neighboring states are determined to start the repeatedly delayed construction of a 140-kilometer gas pipeline in the coming months. He said Iran is now awaiting Turkmenistan's final decision to join the $125 million project, opposed by the United States, and commit itself to supplying Turkmen gas through the planned pipeline.
"The Iranian side has promised that in that case it will build its [40-kilometer] section of the pipeline within six months," Arakelian explained. "The pipeline will transport both Iranian and Turkmen gas to Armenia. We have already found our sources of funding [for its construction]. It only remains to sign a final agreement and begin the construction work."
A tentative agreement on Turkmen gas supplies to Armenia through Iran was reached by Kocharian and Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov in February. According to Arakelian, the two ex-Soviet republics might seal the final deal by the end of this month. Turkmenistan is already linked to Iran with a pipeline.
Thermal power plants using natural gas mainly imported from Russia generate about 40 percent of Armenia's electricity. Armenian officials argue that the diversification of fuel sources will boost the country's "energy security."
The European Union supports the pipeline project in the hope that its implementation would speed up the closure of Armenia's Soviet-era Metsamor nuclear power station.