The issue of a possible lease by Iranian shepherds of grazing lands in Armenia’s southernmost Syunik province is “closed”, according to a senior member of the government in Yerevan.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) Vache Terterian, the first deputy minister of local government, even excluded that the matter will be ever addressed in the future.
News of the possible lease of pastures in the Armenian province bordering on Iran first emerged late last year after the Armenian government confirmed preliminary negotiations on the matter between the Syunik administration and authorities in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.
Surik Khachatrian, the then governor of Syunik, paid a visit to East Azerbaijan at the beginning of this year for further talks on the issue. An Armenian non-governmental organization publicized afterwards what it called a draft Armenian-Iranian agreement on the long-term pasture lease.
The document prompted serious concerns from environment protection and opposition groups in Yerevan. They warned of its negative ecological, economic and even political consequences for the country. Some critics denounced the very fact of Armenian territory being rented out to a foreign state.
The Armenian government responded to these concerns with assurances that nothing had been agreed yet and also promised to ensure transparency in the Armenian-Iranian negotiating process.
In February Iran’s ambassador to Armenia Mohammad Reisi defended the possible deal, insisting that such an arrangement would hugely benefit the Armenian agricultural sector through a drastic increase in livestock exports to the Islamic Republic.
Asked for further clarification of the Armenian side’s position, deputy minister Terterian referred RFE/RL’s Armenian service to the official website of the Ministry of Territorial Government that, in particular, says that no agreement that would entail legal consequences had been signed between the Syunik province of Armenia and Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.
Talking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), head of the Ecolur NGO Inga Zarafian, however, noted the atmosphere of secrecy in which the whole story surrounding the possible lease of grazing lands in Syunik to Iranians started and is likely to end. The environmentalist said in such conditions it was always fraught with corruption risks.
“There is some interest in it from one or two persons, we don’t understand who they are and who is involved in this process. It is very important to us, because if there is some personal interest in it, it means the interests of the state are not safeguarded,” said Zarafian.
Referring to the allegations that the possible deal on the lease of Syunik pastures could be connected with the former governor and that the project was halted only after his resignation last summer, Zarafian said: “This is not just an allegation, it is a fact that former Syunik governor Surik Khachatrian did sign one agreement.”
The environmentalist also said that it was not clear to her at this point whether calling off the deal would result in Armenia paying a penalty.
The former Syunik governor has promised to comment on the matter next week.