By Anna Saghabalian
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian insisted on Thursday that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s official visit to Armenia was a success despite the confusion caused by its sudden end.
Ahmadinejad, who arrived in Yerevan on Monday, unexpectedly flew back to Tehran the next morning after canceling planned visits to the genocide memorial in the Armenian capital and the National Assembly. Armenian officials said he told President Robert Kocharian that needs to return home earlier than expected for “urgent reasons” which they refused to specify.
However, the Iranian president claimed upon his return to Tehran that he did not cut short the trip and that it actually “took longer than what was scheduled before.”
Oskanian was reluctant to comment on the contradictory explanations given by the Armenian and Iranian sides, urging the media focus instead on the substantive aspect of the visit which he described as “brilliant.” He said Ahmadinejad’s talks with Kocharian went ahead as planned and paved the way for a further deepening of Armenian-Iranian ties.
Oskanian insisted that “there is nothing serious” behind Ahmadinejad’s decision to leave Yerevan earlier than expected. He denied speculation that the Iranian leader, who has earned worldwide notoriety for his denial of the Jewish Holocaust, found an excuse to avoid laying a wreath at the Yerevan monument to the Armenian genocide victims.
“Relations between the two countries are so friendly that I don’t think such protocol issues are a problem,” Oskanian told journalists. “What Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Iranian side said is correct and what we said is correct. We just shouldn’t create a problem.”
Speaking at a joint news conference on Monday, Ahmadinejad and Kocharian said they agreed to give new impetus to bilateral economic ties centering on the energy sector. Kocharian said the two sides reaffirmed their strong interest in the construction of a large oil refinery in southeastern Armenia as well as an Armenian-Iranian railway.
They also plan to start next year work on a major hydro-electric plant on the Ara River marking the Armenian-Iranian border. In addition, Armenia 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.
The United States, which accuses Iran of sponsoring international terrorism and seeking to develop nuclear weapons, reaffirmed on Tuesday its opposition to the Armenian-Iranian economic projects. “We have counseled the Armenians, as we have counseled others who have entertained entering into these sort of oil and gas agreements with Iran against doing so,” a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Sean McCormack, said. “We don't think the time is right to even be entertaining the idea of concluding these kinds of agreements.”
McCormack warned that Yerevan should be careful not to breach U.S. and international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic. “If there are any applicable laws that are triggered by any actions taken by any entities, we will take a look at the agreements with respect to U.S. law,” he told a daily news briefing in Washington.
Incidentally, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was also in Washington on Tuesday, holding talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the end of his week-long visit to the U.S. Sarkisian met U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates late last week.
Speaking at his news conference, Oskanian confirmed that his talks in New York earlier this month with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan were largely fruitless. “There is no major change in Turkey’s policy towards Armenia at the moment,” he said. “Turkey remains interested only in processes, while we want results. We have no common ground there yet.”
Turkey makes normalization of its relations with Armenia conditional on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and an end to the Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 genocide. Ankara seems even more unlikely to drop these preconditions now that the U.S. Congress is considering adopting a landmark resolution that describes the slaughter of more than one million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told RFE/RL on Wednesday that he will visit Turkey on Friday to again “explore the possibility” of improving Turkish-Armenian relations.
(Photolur photo: Oskanian meets Ahmadinejad at Yerevan airport on Monday.)