Iranian Pipeline Means Gas, Not Geopolitics to Armenian Town
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Joshua Kucera 8/10/07

Deep in remote southern Armenia, the town of Meghri lies at the
frontlines of one of the region’s most controversial geopolitical
showdowns: the construction of a 140-kilometer-long gas pipeline from
Iran that could reduce Armenian dependency on Russian gas while
clearing the way for a greater role for the Islamic Republic in the
South Caucasus.

But in this sleepy town of 4,000, that aspect of the pipeline does not
register. Meghri may have been the site of a March 2007 pipeline
launch ceremony between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but, to residents, the
strategic questions that surround it account for little.

For nearly 20 years, the town has been reachable only by a long,
tortuous mountain road, the highest in Armenia, passing over a
10,000-foot pass. It is frequently closed during the winter. The
railroad is totally abandoned, its stock sold for scrap to Iran.

Sitting on his balcony with a view over nearby majestic mountains,
Hapo Khatchigian, an artist and the head of the local community
college, says the isolation engendered by the collapse of the Soviet
Union and Armenia’s cutoff from Azerbaijan has affected the town’s

"People in Meghri used to think we were living on the border of a
great empire. It wasn’t easy to come here and so people felt like we
were living in a very important strategic place," he related, speaking
through an interpreter. "But after the Soviet Union we lost this
feeling of importance. Now we’re just in the middle of nowhere and
people are just thinking about local things."

Analysts in Yerevan see the pipeline as an attempt to diversify away
from Russia’s stranglehold on gas supplies; an attempt to which Moscow
responded, they allege, by insisting that the pipeline’s diameter be
sufficiently narrow to supply only enough gas for Armenia and not for
further export through Georgia and on to Europe.

In Meghri, a nearby Russian military base that houses about 2,000
soldiers who guard the border with Iran provides the most immediate
sense of Moscow’s influence. Few questions are asked about the
soldiers’ mission here, however. Town Mayor Misha Hovanissian asserts
that, after many years living with the Russians, " we’re comfortable
with them."

By contrast, the United States, which has viewed the pipeline with a
wary eye, has made little or no impact. The American presence consists
primarily of two garbage trucks and 40 dumpsters that the US
government has donated to the town, according to Hovanissian.

But Meghri residents are not keeping score. Their hope is that gas
from the conduit, primarily intended to fuel a power station in
northern Armenia, will be diverted so that locals can rely on gas
rather than firewood or electrical heaters to keep their homes warm.

That straightforward hope, however, does not make for closer ties with
the town’s Iranian neighbors to the south, on the other side of the
Arax River.

What contact exists is largely commercial. Meghri residents can get
special permission to go to a border market inside Iran to buy cheap
goods like food and clothing to sell in Armenia. Within the town
itself, there are two strip clubs where Ukrainian dancers entertain a
clientele made up largely of Iranian truck drivers, many of whom are
ethnic Azeris from northern Iran.

Interaction, ironically, with these truck drivers often takes place in
Azeri – a language many Armenian residents still remember from the
days when they could interact freely with their Azerbaijani
neighbors. The Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan is mere kilometers
away to the west; central Azerbaijan a bit further to the east.

Those memories often seem to make for a greater willingness than
elsewhere in Armenia to patch over the past. With an open border with
Azerbaijan, residents believe they would benefit from cheaper food,
and shorter travel times to Yerevan. In Soviet times, the trip took
about three hours on a regular highway, or was an easy stop on the
Yerevan-Baku train line. Today, travel time by car can range from nine
to 11 hours, depending on the season, as drivers must bypass

"Everything will get better here when the border is open," commented
Sahak Hambardsyman, the leader of a local non-governmental

"We were always good friends with the Azeris," he continued. "Many
people used to live here and now they live in Baku and we’ll be glad
to see them again. . . .[W]e’re from the Caucasus. We’re the same."

Editor’s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance
writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the
Caucasus and the Middle East.