Kocharian Says Karabakh Will Never be Azeri; Claims Progress On Iran Pipeline But Questions Remain

TEHRAN (Alik–RFE/RL–Armenpress)–"One thing is certain: Karabakh has never been part of independent Azerbaijan–and it will never be so," announced President Robert Kocharian at a gathering in Tehran’s Ararat Stadium Wednesday–attended by hundreds of community members who had gathered to welcome the visiting Armenian leader.

In discussing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process–Kocharian said that his administration continued to strongly support a peaceful resolution–expressing regret–however–that a political solution has not yet been found.

During his remarks–Kocharian also discussed Armenia’s growing relations with Iran–praising the ties–which have been established with Armenia’s southern neighbor.

"Armenia and Iran’share a common border–which is inviolable," announced Kocharian.

Present in the audience were Armenian-Iranian community members–Armenia’s official delegation to Iran–as well as Iran’s Ambassador to Armenia Koleini.

Upon his return to Armenia Thursday–Kocharian said his three-day official visit to Tehran produced further progress toward the construction of an Iran-Armenia gas pipeline but admitted that the two neighbors still have to agree on several issues before launching the $124 million project–reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

An agreement on building the pipeline that would pump Iranian natural gas into Armenia was among a dozen documen’s signed at the end of Kocharian’s trip earlier in the day. But officials accompanying the Armenian leader said that work on the pipeline will not start next year.

"We seem to have reached agreement on starting preparations for the implementation of the project," Kocharian told Armenian state television on his return from the Iranian capital. He added that "the technical side of the issue," including unspecified "engineering deman’s" made by the Armenian side–has not yet been hammered out.

In the words of Energy Minister Armen Movsisian–all "technical documen’s" needed for the start of the construction work will be ready for signing "before the end of 2002."

It was not clear whether the two governmen’s have settled their differences over the price of Iranian gas to be imported by Armenia – one of the main reasons why the construction of the 140 kilometer-long pipeline has been repeatedly postponed. Also–the Armenian government has not yet secured external funding for its share of what it considers a strategically important project.

Kocharian reaffirmed Yerevan’s strong interest in the pipeline–saying that it will boost Armenia’s "energy security" by diversifying its sources of energy. Armenia presently imports natural gas only from Russia.

The accords signed during the Armenian-Iranian summit cover cooperation in the fields of civil engineering–energy–the environment–customs and the protection of historic and cultural monumen’s. The two countries reaffirmed their intention to build a hydro-electrical plan on the river Arax that separates them.

Another major commercial project endorsed by Kocharian and his Iranian counterpart–Mohammad Khatami–envisages construction of a three-kilometer tunnel under the mountain pass in southeastern Armenia. The Kajaran pass–frequently closed in the winter–is vital for transport communication between Iran and Armenia. The bulk of the construction costs worth $42 million will be covered by the Iranian side–official said.

The Armenian ministry of transport and communications said in a statement on Thursday that work on the project will get underway "no sooner than the end of 2002."

An official joint statement issued at the end of Kocharian’s visit to Iran included a call for a peaceful solution to the problem of Nagorno Karabakh–Agence France Presse reported. Tehran has previously acted as a mediator between Yerevan and Baku–but its relations with the latter have further deteriorated recently over the issue of oil rights in the Caspian Sea.

In addition to his talks with Iran’s leaders–including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei–Kocharian also attended a mass in Tehran’s Saint Sarkis Cathedral with dignitaries from Iran’s 300,000-strong Armenian community.

Iranian sources quoted Khamenei as emphasizing the importance of the relations between the two neighbors and calling for closer cooperation between all regional states. Khamenei also attacked the United States–Iran’s arch-foe–and other major world powers for their perceived interference in regional affairs.

"The transregional powers including the United States are in pursuit of their own interests without taking into account the interests of the regional states," the Islamic Republic’s top cleric told Kocharian–according to the official IRNA news agency.

Iran’s President Seyed Mohammad Khatami also held a press conference at Sa’dabad cultural Complex after the two presidents signed the agreemen’s on mutual Iran-Armenia cooperation at the end of Kocharian’s visit to Iran. Khatami stated that Iran-Armenia cooperation is not harmful to anyone and that it will be mutually beneficial to both countries by creating peace and stability within the region–reported the Iranian IRNA news agency.

President Khatami told reporters–"We believe that the regional countries may establish security–peace and stability through cooperation among one another without the interference of foreigners."

He added that the existing historical and cultural commonalties between Iran and Armenia and their location at a strategic region calls for the expansion mutual cooperation. He stressed–"Iran and Armenia are both faced with two issues–namely democracy and catching up in various economic–scientific–and technical fields with the rest of the modernized world."

Khatami said the ten agreemen’s signed during Kocharian’s visit were a symbol of the extensive cooperation between the two countries. He hoped that the agreemen’s will soon be implemented under the supervision of high-ranking officials from both countries.

Khatami stressed the need for the immediate realization of the two projects on the transfer of gas and the construction of the Kajaran tunnel.

Kocharian also praised Iran’s attempts to sign the contracts–and stressed the need for serious evaluations to accelerate the implementation of the projects.

Kocharian said–"The agreemen’s cover various aspects of mutual ties between the two countries including political–economic–scientific and cultural issues." Referring to the fact that the Caucasus region has constantly been significant to the world superpowers and that all the ex-Soviet states staunchly defend their independence and sovereignty–he said he hopes that the expansion of relations among the countries within the region will further strengthen their independence.

Kocharian added–"We believe that regional issues should be solved by the states within the region." He added–"We attempt to secure our regional interests by having productive relations rather than resorting to violence."

Kocharian who arrived in Tehran on Tuesday at President Khatami’s invitation. He conferred with the Islamic Revolution Leader–Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after he met with his Iranian counterpart.

At the second meeting between the presidents held on Wednesday–both stressed the need for a the immediate implementations of the agreemen’s and a joint Iran-Armenia economic commission was assigned to follow up on the agreemen’s. At the second meeting–a book entitled "Iran," was given to President Kocharian by his Iranian counterpart. The Armenian president also conferred with Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Kharrazi and Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani during his visit. He also visited the Sacred Sarkis Church in Tehran and talked to Armenian-Iranians.

The Islamic Republic of Iran and Armenia’signed several memoranda of understanding on bilateral cooperation in different political–economic–scientific and cultural areas on Thursday. The memoranda were signed at the end of the three-day visit to Tehran of the Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his accompanying delegation.

In addition to a joint political statement signed by President Mohammad Khatami and his Armenian counterpart–senior officials from both countries also signed ten letters of understanding. The letters dealt with issues such as the construction of the strategic Kajaran Tunnel–which will connect the two countries–the prevention of customs violations–preserving historical and artistic works–standardization of goods–and bilateral cooperation in the energy–environment and gas fields.

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