YEREVAN, 9 Sept. (IPS) President Mohammad Khatami described the relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the orthodox Christian Armenia as a benchmark of peaceful co-existence and cooperation between neighbours.
Arrived on Tuesday for a two days official visit, Mr. Khatami was greeted at Yerevan airport by virtually all members of Armenia's ruling cabinet and paid a warm tribute to Tehran-Yerevan axis, saying 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".
"Armenias long history as well as its talented, diligent and self-confident people has had a great impact on the human civilisations, he added at the end of the first round of meeting with his Armenian host, Robert Kucharian.
Speaking to reporters, he referred to Irans glorious civilization of the past eras and the Armenians pivotal role in its development and said that even today the Iranian Armenians keep on attempting towards Irans independence and progress along with their Muslim compatriots.
"We respect our neighbours and are keen to cooperate with them. We place special focus on Iran-Armenia ties, which can serve as a model for those countries intending to establish relations on the basis of mutual respect.
"We have felt obliged to establish and deepen relations with Armenia since its independence"
"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.
The warm reception of the Armenians and the eloquence of Mr. Khatamis statements at meetings with Armenian officials contrasted sharply with the rather cool atmosphere of the visit the Iranian President paid to Baku, Yerevana arch enemy, last month.
Azerbaijan has been the most vocal critic of that somehow strange friendship, with many Azerbaijani politicians openly accusing the Islamic Republic of effectively siding with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Although Iran has always denied such claims and Khatami stressed that Iran has tried hard to help the two sides finding a peaceful solution to the crisis, confirming during his visit to Baku that Tehran recognises Azerbaijani sovereignty over the disputed region, yet, relations with Azerbaijan remains tense.
What puzzles many observers is that considering cultural, historical and religious bounds that exists between Tehran and Baku, but the fact is that the clerical-ruled Iran is probably the land locked Armenias best friend and major supporter, to the point that very often, Azerbaijan accusing Iran of being Yerevans most important provider of arms.
Analysts say Bakus "slide towards Washington and Tel Aviv, Irans main enemies, mutual claims on parts on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, secret activities of Iranian religious circles aimed at turning this Shia-dominated Muslim, but secular neighbour into an Islamic Republic are some of the topics explaining the conflicting nature of Tehran-Baku relationship.
"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.
"Our region is very sensitive and there is no alternative but to jointly shoulder responsibility..."
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, the Prague-based Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty reported in a dispatch from the Armenian Capital.
The chief executive reiterated the need to promote security and tranquillity in Iran and Caucasus and said that security and stability in the two sensitive regions will guarantee scientific and cultural development, according to the official Iranian news agency IRNA.
For his part, President Kocharian referred to President Khatamis trip to Armenia as the first visit by an Iranian president to the country and said that it is therefore a significant historical event.
"Our region is very sensitive and there is no alternative but to jointly shoulder responsibility for the development and stability of the region", he said, adding that regional countries share ample commonalties, which could help remove existing problems and thwart probable dangers.
The two leaders signed a framework treaty on bilateral cooperation, which they said would further strengthen political and economic links between the two nations.
The president said that most of the inked documents focused on energy and communications and their exchange. "Given that Armenia is located along the North-South Corridor, the closer the communication between the two countries, the better we can serve the entire region and the global economy", he added.
Voicing satisfaction with expansion and deepening of all-out relations between the two countries, he said "I hope to witness further promotion of mutual relations in economic, cultural and political areas".
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, under which Iran will supply Armenia with a total of 36 billion cubic metres of gas over a 20-year period, expected to start in early 2007.
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 would receive a $30 million (25 million Euros) loan from Iran to finance the construction of the Armenian section.
The construction contract has been awarded to Iranian company Sanir.
The loan should enable Yerevan to finance the 41 kilometres of the 141-kilometre (88-mile) pipeline that cross Armenian territory, Kocharian told journalists after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Khatami.
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.
Khatami and his delegation left Yerevan on Thursday, heading for Minsk and then to neighbouring Tajikistan. ENDS IRAN ARMENIA 9904