By Emil Danielyan
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi struck an optimistic note Wednesday about the future of Iran’s close relations with Armenia at the end of an official visit to Yerevan.
Kharrazi and senior Armenian officials, including President Robert Kocharian, said they are satisfied with the current state of political and economic ties between the two neighboring states, which they believe are vital for regional stability. However, they again avoided announcing any dates for the implementation of ambitious bilateral projects on energy and transport.
“The level of our bilateral relationship is rapidly increasing,” Kharrazi declared at a joint news conference with his Armenian counterpart, Vartan Oskanian.
Kharrazi said his talks in Yerevan, the last leg of his tour of the three South Caucasus states, also focused on preparations for a visit to Armenia by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami planned for this year. A more precise date for the trip has not yet been set. Officials indicated that it will depend on when the two governments finalize a set of far-reaching economic agreements.
Those envisage, among other things, the construction of a strategic pipeline to ship Iranian natural gas to Armenia and, possibly, other countries. The $120 million project, which would ease Armenia’s strong dependence on Russian energy resources, has not yet gotten off the drawing board despite years of negotiation. Kharrazi’s visit did not bring more clarity into the matter.
The Iranian official said the two sides are currently discussing “different variants” of putting the project into practice, but did not elaborate. Oskanian sounded more optimistic on the issue. He assured reported that Tehran and Yerevan are also steadily moving towards the construction of a major hydro-electric plant on the river Arax that marks the Armenian-Iranian border and a 40-kilometer tunnel through a nearby mountain pass in southeastern Armenia.
“I can declare that Mr. Kharrazi’s visit marked further progress towards the realization of those projects,” Oskanian said, adding that Khatami’s planned visit puts both sides under “serious obligation to speed up the process.”
The energy and transport projects reflect the importance attached by the Islamic Republic to relations with its sole Christian neighbor which remains locked in a long-running territorial conflict with Muslim Azerbaijan. Iran and Armenia share strained relations with their common neighbor Turkey and have been concerned about the spread of Turkish influence in the region since the Soviet collapse.
Standing next to Kharrazi, Oskanian praised Tehran’s Armenian policy which he said compares very favorably with Ankara’s staunchly pro-Azeri line. “This is a vivid example of Iran’s much more skilful and balanced policy toward the region, which has had its positive effects,” he said.
Both ministers were also understood to reaffirm their countries’ opposition to NATO’s possible expansion into the South Caucasus sought by Georgia and Azerbaijan. Kharrazi spoke out against “structures pursuing aims that do not stem from the interests of our region,” while Oskanian again warned of “the emergence of new division lines in the region.”
Kharrazi reiterated in this regard his country’s view that the regional states must address their security challenges without any external interference, highlighting Iran’s unease over the growing U.S. political and military presence near its borders. He said Tehran wants to see the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolved “as soon as possible” and is ready to assist in the search for its peaceful settlement.