Monday, July 12, 2004

PM Goh's visit to Iran a fresh beginning

NEW S'PORE-IRAN DIALOGUE: 'ONCE WE ARE FRIENDS, BUSINESS WILL FOLLOW'
PM Goh's visit a fresh beginning

By Paul Jacob

IRANIAN President Mohammad Khatami said a landmark visit by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was an opportunity for a new beginning in relations between the two sides.

Welcoming Mr Goh yesterday at the Republic Mansion, he spoke of his admiration for the progress Singapore has made in areas like the economy, trade, science and technology, as well as in the political process.

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'It is very interesting for us to see an Asian country having been so successful in economic and political developments,' he said in brief remarks to reporters ahead of formal talks between the two delegations.

It was not only heartening that Asian countries had developed in such fields, it was also interesting to see how they were moving to 'redefine their relationships in this current complicated world', he added.

Mr Goh, who arrived on Sunday for the first trip by a Singaporean prime minister since Mr Lee Kuan Yew's visit in 1975, said he was here to begin the process of dialogue with President Khatami and Iranian leaders.

'Whenever I visit a place, my primary objective is to understand the place and to make friends. Once we are friends, business will follow,' he said in response to a question on business opportunities he saw here.

He noted the differences in size, population and make-up of Singaporean and Iranian societies, and said he was looking forward to a very interesting meeting with President Khatami.

This first session between the two leaders took place in one of the elegant rooms of the mansion, one of a number of buildings in the large and wooded presidential palace complex, not unlike the Istana complex in Singapore.

The President accompanied Mr Goh as he reviewed a guard of honour, part of a simple welcome ceremony which included the national anthems of both countries - the only difference here being that the guard-of-honour also sings the Iranian anthem while delivering the salute.

Taking a leaf from Mr Goh's point on the diversity of cultures and ethnic groups and the need to develop understanding and friendships, the Iranian leader said it was important for Asian countries to get to know each other.

'Iran is an important country in the region and we have a long history, and Iran has a unique geo-strategic situation in the region and is also a gateway to the area,' he said.

'Enhanced ties between Iran and Singapore mean that Singapore can also develop relations with the countries in Central Asia and the Middle East... I am sure the Prime Minister's visit to Iran is going to be a very good beginning and a very good start for our bilateral relations.'

Singapore's trade with Iran totalled US$2 billion (S$3.4 billion) last year, much of it being in petroleum products. But both sides see vast potential, in areas like infrastructure development, construction, food processing, telecommunications, medical, education and tourism.

Iran has also expressed interest in a possible free trade agreement with Singapore.

Just last week, Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo told a conference in Singapore of business opportunities in the Middle East and that the Government is moving to form much closer business and political ties there.

While Mr Goh said here that his current visit is not one in which he is looking at business opportunities, officials suggest it could be a catalyst and generate greater interest among the business community in Singapore.

The Prime Minister had a busy schedule yesterday, including calls on Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, laying a wreath at the shrine of the late Iman Khomeini, and talks with Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari and Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharrazi.

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