By Hrach Melkumian
Iran's defense minister, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, began a two-day official visit to Armenia on Monday, calling for close military ties between the two neighboring countries. He also indicated that Tehran is unhappy with the planned dispatch of U.S. troops to Georgia.
"We have special relations with Armenia in the political, economic and cultural spheres," Shamkhani told reporters on his arrival in Yerevan. "Those relations reflect interests of both countries and the geopolitical situation in the region."
"We now want to develop relations in the area of defense and security as well," he said, adding that Armenian-Iranian military cooperation will not be directed against third countries.
It is not clear yet what concrete forms that cooperation will take, however.
Shamkhani held talks with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, later in the day. He is scheduled to meet with President Robert Kocharian and other senior Armenian officials on Tuesday. The two militaries will sign a memorandum of understanding at the end of the visit.
Shamkhani also expressed Iran's opposition to the planned deployment of a 200-strong U.S. army unit in Georgia tasked with training and equipping the Georgian forces for operations against Islamic militants reportedly holed up in the lawless Pankisi Gorge.
"The Islamic Republic's policy has always rejected the military presence near our borders of forces from outside the region," Shamkhani said. In an apparent reference to the United States, he claimed that such "interventionist presence" has only stoked tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Shamkhani's comments came amid an intensifying war of words between Washington and Tehran over President George W. Bush's charge that Iran is part of a global "axis of evil." Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Sunday dismissed new U.S. threats of military action against the Islamic Republic.
Shamkhani was also keen to stress that the first-ever U.S. military move into the South Caucasus, presented by Washington as part of its anti-terror drive, is more relevant to Armenia than his country.
Sarkisian and other Armenian officials have already said that the impending arrival in Georgia of a small contingent of American troops will not destabilize the region. Yerevan has been treading a delicate foreign policy line, seeking, for the past decade, to have simultaneously good relations with Russia, Iran and the U.S. The defense talks with Iran come less than a week after similar discussions in Yerevan with senior U.S. army officers.
Sarkisian is due in Washington on March 17-21 for a visit which officials say will see a final agreement on the use of $4.3 million in American military assistance to Armenia allocated by the U.S. Congress late last year.