By Armen Zakarian
Armenia and Iran have agreed to look into the possibility of constructing a railway that would directly connect the two neighboring countries, a senior official in Yerevan said on Monday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gegham Gharibjanian told RFE/RL that Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian discussed the issue with Iranian leaders during his official visit to Tehran last week.
“There is a possibility of building an Armenian-Iranian railway,” he said. “Mr. Serzh Sarkisian brought up this issue during the visit.”
Sarkisian met with Iranian President Mohammad Khattami, the chairman of the Islamic Republic’s “expediency council,” Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and security chief Hasan Rowhani. News reports from the Iranian capital quoted all three men as emphasizing the importance of Armenian-Iranian relations, with Khattami again saying that they foster peace and stability in the region.
According to Gharibjanian, the Iranians reacted positively to Sarkisian’s proposal. “Mr. Rafsanjani immediately instructed officials to conduct feasibility studies. I think an [Armenian-Iranian] working group will be set up for that purpose,” he said.
Gharibjanian, who served as Yerevan’s ambassador in Tehran until last December and accompanied Sarkisian on the trip, would not be drawn on practical modalities of the idea.
The would-be railway would have to pass through Armenia’s mountainous Syunik region bordering Iran. Due to its high altitude and rocky terrain, Syunik has never had direct rail connection with the rest of the country. Analysts are therefore skeptical about the feasibility of what would be a hugely expensive projects.
The Armenian and Iranian governments, for example, have long been planning to build a 40-kilometer tunnel under a mountain pass in Syunik, the highest in Armenia. The pass is often impassable in the winter. The project, estimated to cost at least $100 million, has still to get off the drawing board.
The two nations could easily communicate by rail via neighboring Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan exclave if the Armenian-Azerbaijani border was open. Nakhichevan has long had a rail link with both Armenia and Iran.
The Armenian government has repeatedly called on Azerbaijan to reopen that railway without any preconditions. However, Baku remains adamant in opposing any cooperation with the Armenians before a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Sarkisian’s visit to Tehran came just two months after the start of work on an Armenia-Iran gas pipeline and the construction of a second high-voltage transmission line connecting the two countries’ power grids.