By Ruzanna Stepanian, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Ruben Meloyan
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rushed back to Tehran on Tuesday, cutting short a two-day official visit to Armenia for reasons that were not immediately clear. Armenian officials linked the move with the political situation in Iran.
Ahmadinejad arrived in Yerevan on Monday and held talks with President Robert Kocharian that focused on growing bilateral cooperation in the energy sector. The Iranian leader was scheduled to begin the second day of the trip with a visit to the Tsitsernakabert genocide memorial in Yerevan. He was also due to deliver a speech in Armenia’s parliament and visit a 18th century Iranian mosque in the capital later in the day.
Although all of these engagements were abruptly cancelled, Ahmadinejad claimed on his return to Tehran that he did not cut short the visit. “The trip to Armenia took longer than what was scheduled before,” the Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying, according to AFP. “This trip was due to last 22 hours but because of some visits,
it became one hour and half longer than the schedule.”
A senior Armenian Foreign Ministry official told RFE/RL, however, that Ahmadinejad did change his visit itinerary which had been agreed by both the Iranian and Armenian sides beforehand. IRNA and other Iranian news agencies themselves reported on Monday he will address the National Assembly and meet representatives of the Iranian community in Armenia on the second day of the trip.
According to Kocharian’s spokesman Victor Soghomonian, Ahmadinejad informed his Armenian counterpart late Monday that he has to head back home earlier than expected for “urgent reasons.” Soghomonian refused to specify those reasons, insisting only that they have nothing to do with the Iranian-Armenian relationship.
The abrupt end of Ahmadinejad’s visit coincided with the start of negotiations in Rome on Iran's controversial nuclear program. Iran's new nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was due to hold his first talks there over the atomic crisis with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Ahmadinejad flew back to Tehran at around noon after a breakfast meeting parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Energy Minister Armen Movsisian. Torosian said afterwards that the visit was cut short due to unspecified “internal issues” in Iranian.
“It is not customary to discuss such issues [with foreign officials,]” Torosian told reporters. “Especially considering the fact the visit was not initiated by the National Assembly.”
“Mr. Ahmadinejad asked me to tell our parliamentarians that he regrets the need to interrupt the visit and return to Iran and that he will not be able to visit the parliament,” he told the National Assembly later in the day.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gegham Gharibjanian, who was also present at the meeting, said the Iranian side presented “very serious arguments” in favor of the change of plans but declined to disclose them. “I spoke to the Iranian deputy foreign minister,” said Gharibjanian. “He said there are urgent issues and that they have to depart.”
Gharibjanian also insisted that Ahmadinejad’s visit was “very successful.” “A lot of progress was made on serious [Armenian-Iranian] economic projects,” he said.
Kocharian said after talks with the Iranian leader on Monday that they agreed to press ahead with plans to jointly build a large oil refinery in southeastern Armenia as well as an Armenian-Iranian railway. The two governments also plan to start next year work on a major hydro-electric plant on the Arax River marking the Armenian-Iranian border. In addition, the Armenian side has pledged to complete by the end of 2008 the ongoing construction of the second and final Armenian section of a natural gas pipeline from Iran.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Kocharian, Ahmadinejad said Iran remains committed to deepening ties with Armenia as it believes they are “very important” for the two nations and the region as a whole. “Fortunately, Armenian-Iranian relations are warm, strong and developing,” he told professors and students at Yerevan State University later on Monday. “Relations that are based on friendship, justice and mutual respect.”
Ahmadinejad stressed at the same time that Tehran and Yerevan are only “at the beginning of the road” and that their relationship has a “bright future.” “I believe we should step up efforts to deepen our relations in the scientific, cultural and intellectual spheres and to develop our infrastructures,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Ahmadinejad greeted by Kocharian on Monday.)