By Armen Zakarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami described on Wednesday his country’s relationship with Armenia as a benchmark of peaceful co-existence and cooperation between neighbors on the first day of an official visit to Yerevan where he was given a red-carpet reception.
Khatami was greeted at Yerevan airport by virtually all members of Armenia’s ruling cabinet before going into talks with President Robert Kocharian. The two leaders signed a framework treaty on bilateral cooperation which they said will further strengthen political and economic links between the two nations. They also presided over the signing of several other agreements covering the energy sector, customs administration and culture.
“The relationship between the Armenian and Iranian peoples can serve as the best example for all those who want to live side by side and respect each other’s sovereignty,” Khatami declared at an ensuing joint news conference with Kocharian.
“We have felt obliged to establish and deepen relations with Armenia since its independence,” he said. “Every year that followed 1991 saw a further development of our relations. The agreements signed today give us hope that they will continue to deepen in the future.”
“I declare that this relationship is to the benefit of the sides but not to the detriment of anybody else,” Khatami added in an apparent bid to allay concerns expressed by other regional states.
Neighboring Azerbaijan has been the most vocal critic of that cooperation. Many Azerbaijani politicians openly accuse the Islamic Republic of effectively siding with Christian Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Iran has always denied such claims, with Khatami stressing during a visit to Baku last month that Tehran recognizes Azerbaijani sovereignty over the disputed region.
“We are ready to make every effort to help resolve crises existing in the region, including Nagorno-Karabakh, and to contribute to the establishment of a lasting peace and stability in the region,” Khatami said in a speech at the Armenian parliament later in the day.
Iran is widely regarded in Armenia as a vital geopolitical partner and having close ties with the Islamic Republic is among few subjects of consensus in the Armenian political arena. The Armenian opposition underlined this fact when deputies representing it briefly suspended their boycott of parliament sessions to hear Khatami’s speech.
Kocharian, meanwhile, said that Armenia and Iran should pay particular attention to developing their economic cooperation. He singled out the energy sector where the two nations plan to implement multimillion-dollar joint projects.
The biggest of them is the construction of a pipeline that will ship Iranian natural gas to Armenia and possibly other countries. An agreement on the implementation of the $120 million project was signed by the two governments in Yerevan last May.
Armenia’s ambassador to Tehran, Gegham Gharibjanian, told RFE/RL this week that work on the Iranian section of the pipeline is already underway and will soon begin on the Armenian side. Energy Minister Armen Movsisian had said earlier that the Armenian government will receive a $30 million loan from Iran to finance the construction of the Armenian section.
Despite the energy projects, the volume of Armenian-Iranian trade has steadily declined in recent years and made up only 3.5 percent of Armenia’s external commercial exchange last year.