Iran's recent interest in partially financing the multi-million-dinar Disi water conveyance system project is being interpreted as an indication of improvement in diplomatic and trade ties between Amman and Tehran, officials and political analysts said on Saturday.
"The Iranian offer will enhance not only trade between the two countries, but also political ties," said Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “It comes as part of the two countries' endeavors to improve diplomatic relations, especially under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami," Hamarneh said.
The Iranian offer to help finance the project, which includes transporting 100 million cubic meters of water per year from southern Jordan to the capital and surrounding areas, was made during the three-day visit of Iran's Minister of Industry Gholam Reza Shafei to Jordan last week.
"We received the Iranian offer, and it is under study," Minister of Trade and Industry Wasif Azar said. "It is merely an idea and we have welcomed it." Azar said the Iranian offer included providing pipes for the system and the construction of dams, which could be used to store water in different parts of the Kingdom.
"If their offer is good, we are ready to consider it, because this project is very important and vital to Jordan," the minister told the Jordan Times. Azar said that among the factors that would determine Iran's participation is "who is going to finance this project."
During a visit by Libyan Leader Muammar Qadhafi to the Kingdom on September, Qadhafi said that his country was ready to help in financing the $400 million project, also offering to provide pipes. But observers believe that the Iranian offer is far better and “more serious” than the Libyan proposal.
Iran appears to be seeking a barter agreement on the financing, offering pipes in return for Jordanian phosphate and potash. "The Iranian interest in taking part in the Disi project is an important one which should not be undervalued," said Salman Bdour, an expert on Iranian-Jordanian relations, said.
During his visit to Jordan, Shafei met with director of the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company Khalid Shiyab and discussed the offer with him. Experts said that Iran's interest in buying Jordan's potash and phosphate could help revive the mining industry, which is suffering from stiff global competition and pressured by a decline in profits over the past few years.
The Iranian official also said that Tehran is ready to help in constructing dams, petrol refineries and stores for the Kingdom's gas and petrol reserves. Shafe'i also indicated that Iran is willing to sign an agreement to protect investors from the two countries, from losses.
During the Jordan-Iran meetings on Tuesday, the Iranian minister asked Jordan to pay an old debt to Tehran, from the days of the Shah. Shafe'i did not say how much the debt is but describe it as “small”.
Jordan and Iran restored diplomatic ties in the early 1990s after the two states severed their relationship in 1980 following the outbreak of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in which Amman sided with Baghdad. Over the last decade, ties remained cool because of security and foreign policy considerations, especially regarding the US.
But observers believe that the pragmatic policies of Khatami have helped accelerate the improvement in ties between Tehran and several countries in the region, including Jordan. Since Khatami's election to power in 1997, Jordan and Iran undertook concrete measures including launching direct flights between the two capitals and a maritime line between Iranian ports and the Port of Aqaba.
In September, King Abdullah met President Khatami in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, and Queen Rania visited Tehran on July 3, upon the invitation of Zahra Sadiqi, the wife of the Iranian president.
King Abdullah is also expected to visit Tehran next summer upon an invitation from Khatami, which was extended to him by the Iranian president during different visits by Iranian officials to the Kingdom last year. An earlier visit by former director of the Public Intelligence Department Samih Battikhi to Iran is expected to be reciprocated by his Iranian counterpart Ali Falahyan, observers said.
Jordan eyes the religious tourism of Iranian Shiite pilgrims as one of the commercial sectors with the greatest potential for development. Several sites in Jordan, such as the Tombs of the Companions of the Prophet and the Tomb of Jaafar, brother of Ali Ben Abbi Taleb, who is considered one of the holiest figures to the Shiite sect. Tourism experts believe that Jordan hosts more than 100,000 Islamic sites.
Other signs that ties are warming are the recent easing in visa procedures for Iranian tourists from the Jordanian side. In the past, visas were often delayed for "security reasons," but Jordan recently announced that it would grant Iranian tourists entry visas upon their arrival at any point of entry to the Kingdom.
"Syria earns over $1 billion every year from Iranian pilgrims — we could earn much more if we ease the entry for these pilgrims to Jordan," said Bdour. Azar said the Jordanian decision will facilitate tour groups entering Jordan. He added that Jordan is also trying to facilitate the entry of Iranian businessmen "by granting them visas as soon as they arrive at Jordanian airports."
Jordan-Iran trade ties remained humble despite efforts of the two governments to increase the trade volume between the two countries. Official figures showed that trade volume in 1999 did not exceed $40 million. — ( Jordan Times )
By Tareq Ayyoub
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)