Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Ahmadinejad in Armenia - diplomatic obligation or political manoeuvre?

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has been under a bit of strain recently. A power struggle with the Supreme Leader and the judiciary, in the course of which he has appointed himself caretaker in charge of the Oil Ministry despite heavy criticism, has left him isolated and under fire from conservatives. So why not get away from it all by visiting one of the few neighbouring states where you will be welcomed?

Of course, President Ahmadinejad's scheduled trip to Armenia on June 6 is hardly a holiday - presidential trips are planned more rigorously than a weekend jaunt, particularly as it is the Iranian leader's first time in Armenia since 2007. But it is undoubtedly a welcome distraction from his problems at home - and it may be an opportunity for him to solve some of those problems.

The presidential visit, in which Ahmadinejad will meet his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian and other officials, follows an inter-governmental meeting in Tehran on May 31. There Armenia's energy minister signed a number of agreements with the Iranian foreign minister - President Ahmadinejad's current role as head of the Oil Ministry, following his unpopular decision to merge it with the Energy ministry meant that the Armenian representative had no ministerial opposite number to sign with.

Local news agencies emphasised the fact that trade between the two countries now stood at $270 million (up 38% on 2010), a pretty significant sum given the size of the Armenian economy. 

President Ahmadinejad will probably seek to agree further increases in this during his trip, but the biggest area to watch is his brand-new portfolio, energy. Armenia's energy sector remains under-developed, especially since current concerns about nuclear power have led to more pressure to close the aging Metsamor plant, and boosting cooperation with Iran on hydroelectricity and natural gas is essential, economically and politically.

But it is the Iranian leader, not the Armenians, who has most to politically gain from this trip. His decision to merge the Oil and Energy Ministries and take temporary charge of it has been widely seen as a power grab, and has been declared illegal by Parliament. If he can come back from Armenia with a good deal which brings dividends for Iran's energy sector, or at least argue that a brand-new minister wouldn't have time to prepare for the trip to Yerevan, he may be able to buy himself some more time in the post and win his game of bluff with the judiciary. 

So is this trip a polite diplomatic obligation, or a bit of domestic political maneuvering? The fruits of the visit will answer that.

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