Salehi reiterated Tehran’s interest in expanding the already close Armenian-Iranian ties in separate meetings with President Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian.
“Rest assured that Iran, as a friendly country, will always be determined and committed to develop relations with Armenia,” he told Sarkisian.
Official Armenian sources said the talks focused on preparations for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s forthcoming visit to Armenia as well as Armenian-Iranian economic projects.
Those include the construction of two hydroelectric plants on the Arax river marking the Armenian-Iranian border and a pipeline that will ship Iranian fuel to Armenia. The two governments also plan to build a third high-voltage transmission line connecting their power grids.
The Armenian government has repeatedly said that work on these facilities will start this year. However, there have been no official announcements to that effect yet.
Neither Salehi, nor Nalbandian mentioned any time frames for the implementation of the multimillion-dollar projects at a joint news conference that followed their talks.
The Iranian minister spoke instead of untapped potential in bilateral economic ties. In particular, he complained that Armenian-Iranian trade is on course to reach only $300 million this year. “Armenia can export its products to Iran,” he said. “We are ready to take them and export our goods to Armenia.”
According to the Armenian National Statistical Service, Iran accounted for only 6.1 percent of Armenia’s overall foreign trade in the first ninth months of 2011, compared with the European Union’s 33.6 percent and Russia’s 20 percent shares of the total. Still, the volume of its commercial exchange with the Islamic Republic rose by over 21 percent to $241.7 million in this period.
Tehran has pushed, at least until this year, for the signing of an Armenian-Iranian free-trade agreement. According to some officials in Yerevan, the two sides disagree on terms of such a deal.
Successive Armenian governments have also been lukewarm about a long-standing Iranian proposal to abolish visas for Armenian and Iranian nationals travelling to each other’s countries. Salehi reaffirmed Tehran’s strong support for this idea, saying that a visa-free regime would lead to a sharp increase in the number of Iranian tourists visiting Armenia, which has surpassed 100,000 this year.
“I hope that one day one million Iranian tourists will visit Armenia,” Salehi told the news conference with Nalbandian. “I also hope that one day a visa-free regime will be established between the two countries and crossing our border will be as easy as travelling inside our countries.”
According to Nalbandian, preparations for Ahmadinejad’s official visit to Armenia were also high on the agenda of the talks. He said the Iranian president is due to arrive in Yerevan “before the end of the year.”
The visit was originally scheduled for last June. Ahmadinejad cancelled it at the last minute for reasons that remain unclear.
Meeting with Nalbandian in Tehran in September, Ahmadinejad reportedly repeated his earlier remark that the Islamic Republic is placing “no limitations” on the strengthening of ties with its sole Christian neighbor. “We can expand the existing relations by up to three times,” he said, adding that this would bolster peace and stability in the region.
Salehi likewise asserted that the Iranian-Armenian relationship is good for regional security. He said Tehran and Yerevan have similar positions on many regional and international issues.
Salehi also denounced renewed international pressure on Iran stemming from its controversial nuclear program.
Tensions between Iran and the West have been rising again as press leaks suggested that a report due for release by Wednesday by the UN atomic watchdog will produce evidence that Iran is secretly developing a nuclear arms capability. The report is widely seen as a potential trigger for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Armenia has always avoided any public criticism of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, underscoring the Islamic Republic’s perceived importance for its security and economic development. Unresolved bitter disputes with the two other Muslim neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey, make Iran one of the landlocked country’s two conduits to the outside world.