YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Iran’s ambassador to Armenia defended a possible lease by Iranian sheep and cattle breeders of Armenian mountain pastures on Tuesday amid growing concerns voiced by government critics in Yerevan.
Mohammad Reisi insisted that such an arrangement would hugely benefit the Armenian agricultural sector through a drastic increase in livestock exports to the Islamic Republic.
News of the possible lease of pastures in Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province bordering Iran emerged late last year. The Armenian government confirmed preliminary negotiations on the matter between the provincial administration and authorities in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.
Surik Khachatrian, the Syunik governor, visited East Azerbaijan for further talks last month. 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 has been agreed yet. It also promised to ensure transparency in the Armenian-Iranian negotiating process.
Ambassador Reisi likewise denied that the two sides have reached a definitive agreement. “If any document is signed it cannot be kept secret and will certainly have to be approved by the parliaments of the two countries,” he told a news conference.
Reisi at the same time voiced strong support for the idea of pasture lease. “When I came to Armenia one of the projects proposed by me was to foster cattle raising in Armenia,” he said. “Armenia is an agricultural country and has a great potential for cattle breeding. Unfortunately, the size of its livestock is not sufficient.”
The Armenian Ministry of Agriculture puts the domestic livestock population at roughly 1.35 million. Sheep account for around half of it.
Reisi claimed that the lease sought by the Iranians would help to quickly raise the number of sheep and cattle in Armenia to 7 million. “Armenia can export 2-3 million sheep to Iran each year,” he said.
Armenian sheep exports to Iran have already risen sharply in the last few years. But they reportedly ground to a half last fall due to the tightening of international economic sanctions against Tehran and the resulting sharp depreciation of the Iranian national currency.