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Armenia: Officials Endorse Trilateral Economic Cooperation

The foreign ministers of Armenia, Iran, and Greece ended a two-day meeting in Yerevan yesterday that was aimed at boosting tripartite relations. Although the stated goal of the culturally and religiously diverse nations was economic cooperation, some observers see a geopolitical motive for the display of goodwill. Our correspondent in Yerevan, Emil Danielyan, reports.

Yerevan, 9 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At a ceremony today in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, the foreign ministers of Armenia, Greece, and Iran signed a memorandum of mutual understanding. The three countries outlined future joint projects, chiefly in the energy and transport sectors.

Vartan Oskanian of Armenia, George Papandreou of Greece and Kamal Kharrazi of Iran ended the group's third-annual meeting by sealing the document on economic cooperation. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian praised the agreement:

"We have laid very strong foundations for effective and efficient cooperation in the coming months and years."

Greek Foreign Minister Papandreou concurred, saying that he is also satisfied with the results of the two-day talks.

The Armenia-Greece-Iran group was formed in 1997 with the stated aim of furthering trilateral economic ties. The large geographic area encompassed by the group, however, has fueled speculation that there is also a hidden geopolitical agenda behind the stated pursuit of closer contacts.

While Iran and Armenia share a common border, Greece is situated hundreds of miles away, separated by Turkey. Each of the trio has historically had strained relations with Ankara, and this tension with Turkey is seen by analysts as a major reason for the Armenian-Greek-Iranian rapprochement.

At the meeting in Yerevan, the three ministers again dismissed this theory. Oskanian said (Sept. 7) that military cooperation would not be on the agenda. And Papandreou firmly declared yesterday:

"Our trilateral cooperation is not directed against anyone. What we are doing is to cooperate amongst ourselves, and that by itself is an important contribution to stability in the region."

Oskanian said relations with Ankara were discussed only during his meetings on Tuesday with Greek officials. He said the two sides agreed on the need to "engage in a dialogue with Turkey."

"We think that Turkey's positive and even-handed engagement in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Caucasus in general could be extremely helpful and conducive to a peaceful settlement."

Turkey has said it will not establish diplomatic relations with Armenia or open its border until Armenia accepts Azerbaijani sovereignty over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan has until now opposed active Turkish involvement in the Karabakh peace process, accusing Ankara of being overtly pro-Azerbaijani.

Experts at the Yerevan-based Caucasian Center for Iranian Studies say that, apart from the Turkish factor, there is also an "emotional element" that makes the three nations gravitate toward each other.

They say this has to do with long-standing contacts among Armenians, Greeks and Iranians that date back more than 2,500 years. Much of that contact, however, took the form of armed conflict, as medieval Armenia was an object of numerous wars between the Byzantine and Persian empires.

The three foreign ministers said another aim of the tripartite group is to promote a "dialogue among civilizations," a notion included in yesterday's memorandum. In the words of Oskanian:

"With each one of our countries having old history and culture and everyone of us in its own right being a cradle for civilization, I think we do have a moral obligation and responsibility to engage in that kind of dialogue, which will be conducive to peace and stability in our respective regions."

In the short term, the more mundane economic cooperation centers on the construction of a pipeline carrying Iranian natural gas to Armenia. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said intensive discussions between experts are under way on details of the $120 million project.

Papandreou reaffirmed what he called Greece's "sincere interest" in participating in the pipeline's construction. Armenian officials hope Athens will attract funds from the European Union for that purpose.

In the area of transport, Armenia and Iran hope that Greek assistance will allow them to establish more efficient commercial routes to Europe. Kharrazi said Tehran is eager to have "access" to Europe, via Armenia and presumably Georgia. Papandreou suggested that Iran could be included in the European Union's TRACECA project. TRACECA stands for Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia.

Five years ago, the EU launched the TRACECA initiative to support the newly independent countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia by helping them to upgrade and link their infrastructures. By funding new road, rail and ferry links in the region, the EU hopes to increase local trade and, just as importantly, open another route for international cargo traffic between Asia and Europe.