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Why Did Iran's Ahmadinejad Cut Short Armenia Visit?

October 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Amid speculation over why Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad suddenly cut short a visit to Armenia today, senior Armenian officials have told RFE/RL that it may have been due to the "deteriorating health" of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad had arrived in Yerevan on October 22 for two days of talks with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials on joint energy and transportation projects. But today, the hard-line president suddenly skipped a planned visit to a memorial for the victims of the Ottoman Turkish massacre of Armenians some 90 years ago -- an event that Yerevan wants the world to recognize as genocide.

Armenian officials have said Ahmadinejad told them that he had to leave early due to unexpected developments in Iran. But upon his arrival in Tehran, the president told Iranian journalists that he had stayed even longer than planned.

Senior Armenian officials say Ahmadinejad may have left early because the health of Khamenei, long believed to be poor, had taken a turn for the worse. "There are different suggestions that some problems have arisen inside Iran connected to the health of Khamenei," leading parliamentarian Victor Dalakian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service in Yerevan.

Another Armenian official, speaking to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity, also cited Khamanei’s "deteriorating health" as a possible reason for Ahmadinejad’s sudden return home.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry insisted earlier this year that the supreme leader is doing fine, despite persisent reports to the contrary.

Reports in Armenia and elsewhere have also speculated that Ahmadinejad's early departure may have been connected to an internal Iranian power struggle tied to the recent resignation of Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, who was seen as close to Khamanei.

He was replaced by Said Jalili, who is reportedly close to Ahmadinejad. Both Jalili and Larijani were in Rome today for nuclear talks with European Union officials.

There's also has been speculation that Ahmadinejad cut short his visit to avoid planting a tree at a memorial to victims of the Ottoman massacre of Armenians -- a move that some believe would have angered Turkey.

The issue made headlines after the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. Senate recently passed a nonbinding resolution that would recognize the killings as genocide.

"With this step, [Ahmadinejad] showed that Turkey, and relations with Turkey, are more important for Iran than Armenian sensitivities," Rasim Musabekov, a Baku-based political analyst, told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. "It's a rational move, and he's done it in a smart way."

But other have noted that Turkish-Iranian ties suffered no obvious damage in September 2004, after then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami laid flowers at the same memorial in Yerevan.

And on his trip, Ahmadinejad commented directly on the massacre, saying on October 22 that he was "against the brutality" waged on Armenians during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

He also said that Iranian Armenians, who constitute one of Iran’s main ethnic groups, are free every year to commemorate the mass killings on April 24. He did not use the word genocide, but ethnic Armenians in Iran have a monument in Tehran which commemorates the tragedy as genocide.

Copyright (c) 2007 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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