By Hovannes Shoghikian
Armenia is pressing ahead with an extremely ambitious project to build a railway linking it to neighboring Iran, Transport and Communications Minister Gurgen Sargsian said on Tuesday.
The governments of the two countries have been discussing ways of implementing it but have yet to reach final agreements. The lack of a rail link between them is seen as a major hindrance to the development of Armenian-Iranian commercial ties as well as the use of Iranian territory in Armenia’s transport communication with the outside world.
President Serzh Sarkisian announced earlier this month that work on the railway will get underway “in the coming months,” saying that this and other large-scale infrastructure projects are vital for Armenia’s economic development. But he said nothing about the likely cost of the construction and its sources of funding.
Sargsian likewise avoided commenting on these specifics, saying only that the project has reached “the phase of active studies” and that its implementation is a matter of time. He said the Armenian government is currently considering three potential routes of the Armenian section of the would-be railway.
“After choosing one of those variants we could switch to engineering design and cost calculation, which will make construction possible,” Sargsian told RFE/RL in an interview. In any case, he said, the railway will be approximately 400 kilometers long and will pass through Armenia’s mountainous Syunik region bordering Iran.
Citing Syunik’s difficult landscape, economic analysts say building the railway would cost Armenia at least $1 billion, a figure equivalent to about 40 percent of its state budget for this year. Some have wondered if the project is feasible at all.
“We can not come up with concrete estimates today because they would be meaningless without feasibility study documents,” said Sargsian. “But obviously it will be an expensive project. In terms of funding, we have a number of options.”
In his words, one such option is to set up a consortium with Iran and Russia, whose state-run rail company took over long-term management of Armenia’s entire rail network earlier this year. The minister added that international finance institutions such as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have also expressed interest in partly financing the Iran-Armenia railway.
Armenia’s rail communication with the rest of the world was disrupted in the early 1990s with the outbreak of the wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia and the resulting closure of its border with Turkey. The landlocked country has since been able to ship and receive rail cars laden with cargos only through the relatively expensive rail-ferry services operating between Georgian and other Black Sea ports.
(Photolur photo: The river Arax marking the Armenian-Iranian border.)