Iran's president plans trip to improve ties with Saudis

Talks to focus on Iraq, Lebanon, regional stability

March 02, 2007|By New York Times News Service

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is planning a trip to Saudi Arabia, an official said, for talks expected to focus on regional stability and the sectarian fighting in Iraq and Lebanon.

"The two heads of state will discuss issues of the Islamic world, bilateral ties and the situation in the Middle East," Mohammad Hosseini, Iran's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the Iranian news agency IRNA. He did not say when the trip would be made, but other news agencies reported that it would take place this weekend.

"When the views of the two countries get closer, they can play an influential role in the chaotic situation of the Islamic world and the Middle East," Hosseini said.

"Unrest is increasing in the Middle East, and if the situation continues, it will become a threat for all the countries in the region," he said.

Analysts said they believe the trip is aimed at improving relations between the regional powers, and Ahmadinejad's visit is the latest in an exchange of visits in recent months. Iran sent its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, to the kingdom and Saudi Arabia has sent envoys to Iran in recent months.

Saudi Arabia has also increased its public involvement in Iraq and its support of the Sunni-led government in Lebanon in what appears to be an attempt to counter Iranian efforts to establish itself as the predominant regional power, diplomats, analysts and officials said last month.

The Saudis tend to see the conflict in Iraq as Sunnis versus Shiites - and they favor the Sunnis, while the Americans back the Shiite-led government.

A collaboration between Iran and Saudi Arabia could complicate the regional policy of the United States, which is alarmed at rising Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon, and with Hamas.

One diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and in Lebanon would be the major topic of discussion between the countries. He also said Saudi Arabia has urged Iran to heed the demand by the U.N. Security Council that it halt its uranium enrichment program.

"Saudi Arabia is a predominant country in the region, and the understanding between Riyadh and Tehran is important for the security of the region," the diplomat said.

Another diplomat who also spoke on the condition of anonymity said Arab countries are worried about Iran's role as a non-Arab state in the region.

"Iran is not an Arab state, it is not a neighbor of Lebanon and it has its own way of solving the Palestinian and Israeli conflict," he added. "They want Iran not to interfere in the Arab politics."

Saudi Arabia has recently taken on a more central, aggressive role in reshaping the region's conflicts. Last month, it hosted leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two feuding Palestinian factions, in talks intended to lead to a national unity government. Last fall, senior Saudi officials met secretly with Israeli leaders about how to establish a Palestinian state.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been mediating an agreement to end Lebanon's violent political crisis. Leaders of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed party trying to overthrow Lebanon's government, visited the Saudi king in Riyadh this year, according to officials. And Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi chief security adviser, has recently met Larijani, in Riyadh and Tehran to try to stop Lebanon's slide into civil war.

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