By Emil Danielyan
Senior Armenian and Iranian government officials wrapped up another round of economic talks in Tehran Thursday, calling for closer commercial ties but announcing no progress towards the planned construction of a strategic pipeline that would ship Iranian natural gas to Armenia.
A memorandum of understanding issued by an inter-governmental commission on bilateral economic cooperation did not to ascertain the fate of the $125 million project, according to reports from the Iranian capital.
The official IRNA news agency quoted Iranian President Mohammad Khatami as expressing hope on Wednesday that its repeatedly delayed implementation will begin “soon.” Meeting with Artashes Tumanian, the Armenian co-chairman of the commission and chief of President Robert Kocharian’s staff, Khatami said he hopes that the two neighboring states will press ahead with also press ahead with other joint energy projects.
Tumanian, for his part, was quoted as saying that Yerevan too remains committed to their successful implementation.
The joint memorandum, according to Itar-Tass news agency, did not mention any possible dates for the start of construction work on the 140-kilometer gas pipeline. It instead noted that the Armenian side will consider Tehran’s proposal to import Iranian gas and pay for it with electricity.
It was not clear whether the offer concerns natural or liquefied Iranian gas. The latter has for years been transported to Armenia by heavy trucks.
The Armenian Energy Ministry declined to comment on the information before the return of the Armenian delegation from Tehran which is expected on Friday. Among 17 members of the delegation led by Tumanian is Energy Minister Armen Movsisian and one of his deputies, Ara Simonian.
Meanwhile, an Armenian energy expert privy to energy discussions with Iran told RFE/RL that a major reason for the pipeline project’s failure to get off the drawing board is Russia’s reluctance to see Armenia acquire an alternative source of natural gas. Russia’s Gazprom giant is currently Armenia’s sole supplier of the fuel which generates about 40 of its electricity. The pipeline in question would allow Armenia to import gas from not only Iran but also Turkmenistan.
Armenian and Iranian officials hoped that Gazprom and other Russian energy companies will help them build the 40-kilometer Armenian section of the pipeline. The cash-strapped Armenian government’s inability to fund its construction has been a key obstacle to the project’s implementation. Some analysts say that the Russians will show even less interest in the pipeline now that they own Armenia’s largest thermal power plant as a recent assets-for-debt agreement between Yerevan and Moscow.
The energy expert, who asked not to be identified, said the Russians now insist that the future pipeline have a small diameter in an apparent bid to prevent Iranian gas from reaching third countries.
The Armenian-Iranian commission also said that the two countries intend to double the volume of their trade in the coming days. It amounted to about $100 million last year.