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 character.
"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 Nakhchivan.
"Everything will get better here when the border is open," commented Sahak Hambardsyman, the leader of a local non-governmental organization.
"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."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.