YEREVAN -- Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi says Tehran wants greater trade and visa-free travel between Armenia and Iran, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports. Salehi repeated in separate meetings with President Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian during his visit to Yerevan on November 8 that Tehran is interested in expanding already close Armenian-Iranian ties.
"Rest assured that Iran, as a friendly country, will always be determined and committed to develop relations with Armenia," Salehi told Sarkisian.
Official Armenian sources said the talks with Salehi focused on preparations for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's upcoming visit to Armenia as well as joint economic projects.
Those include the construction of two hydroelectric plants on the Arax River, which marks 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 projects will start this year but there have not yet been any official announcements to that effect.
Increase In Bilateral Trade
Neither Salehi nor Nalbandian mentioned any timeframes for the implementation of the multimillion-dollar projects at a news conference that followed their talks.
Salehi spoke instead of the 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.
But Armenia's volume of its commercial exchange with Iran did rise by more than 21 percent to $241.7 million in that nine-month period.
Tehran has pushed, at least until this year, for the signing of an Armenian-Iranian free-trade agreement. But some officials in Yerevan have said the two sides disagree on the terms of such a deal.
Potential Visa-Free Regime
Successive Armenian governments have also been lukewarm about a longstanding 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, a number that surpassed 100,000 this year.
"I hope that one day 1 million Iranian tourists will visit Armenia," Salehi said at 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."
Nalbandian said preparations for Ahmadinejad's official visit to Armenia were also high on the agenda of the talks. He said Ahmadinejad is due to arrive in Yerevan "before the end of the year."
The visit was originally scheduled for June but Ahmadinejad cancelled it at the last minute for reasons that remain unclear.
No Armenian Criticism Of Tehran's Nuclear Ambitions
Meeting with Nalbandian in Tehran in September, Ahmadinejad reportedly repeated his earlier remark that Iran is placing "no limitations" on the strengthening of ties with its only predominantly-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 today by the UN nuclear 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 Iran's perceived importance for Armenia's security and economic development. Unresolved bitter disputes with its other two Muslim neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey, make Iran one of landlocked Armenia's two conduits to the outside world.
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