TEHRAN, (Agencies) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left on Saturday for his first official trip to Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally that is leading a diplomatic drive to curb Tehran’s growing influence in Lebanon and Iraq.
Tehran is also under pressure over what the West says are plans to build atomic bombs under cover of a civilian nuclear programme, a charge Iran denies. Riyadh shares U.S. suspicions.
Iranian state radio said talks between Ahmadinejad and Saudi officials, including King Abdullah, would cover “changes in the region and Islamic world, expanding mutual ties, the situation in the Middle East and Iran’s nuclear case”.
On Saturday, top diplomats from the United States, Russia,
China, Britain, France and Germany will try to reach agreement on new sanctions against Iran. A U.S. official predicted the session would lead to a “substantive resolution.”
The push for new sanctions follows an International Atomic
Energy Agency report in late February that Iran was expanding enrichment instead of suspending it. At the same time, the U.S. has been beefing up its military presence in the Gulf in the past two months. Although Washington has said it has no plans to strike Iran, it has also refused to rule out any option.
The U.S official said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and other senior officials were in the delegation which left for Saudi Arabia.
An Iranian official earlier said Ahmadinejad would stay in the kingdom until Sunday.
Saudi Arabia, a Sunni bastion, and other U.S.-allied Arab governments are also concerned that Shi’ite Muslim Iran is gaining influence in Lebanon by supporting Hezbollah in its conflict with the U.S.-backed government of Fouad Siniora.
Saudi and Iranian officials have met several times to mediate between Lebanese opposition forces led by Hezbollah, which is also backed by Syria, and the Siniora government.
Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi journalist and analyst, said “the visit should be viewed with optimism,” especially since it culminates weeks of talks between the two countries. He said that if Riyadh was not sure that the talks will be successful, it would not have held it now. “Saudi Arabia is not a politically bankrupt country looking for a show for its foreign policies,” he said. “If it didn’t know that the visit would add to its political achievements, it wouldn’t have been enthusiastic about it.”
Saudi newspapers, which are government-guided, struck a welcoming tone in editorials, saying they hoped Ahmadinejad’s visit signals an Iranian willingness to revise its regional policies and work with, rather than against, Arab governments. Ghassan Sharbil, the Lebanese editor of the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat daily, described the visit as “exceptional” and said Ahmadinejad can, if he wants to, turn it into an opportunity for his country. “Iran has proved its capability of destabilization … cold and hot objections,” wrote Sharbil. “Now, it’s time to prove its ability to participate in creating stability.” “Ahmadinejad can invest in this summit to calm down the Arab world, the Islamic world and the whole globe in order to protect Iran against isolation, the dangers of an American strike and a new resolution by the Security Council.”
Iranian analysts believe that Ahmadinejad will reach out to try to ease regional tensions. Independent writer Saeed Leylaz said, “Since Ahmadinejad’s harsh rhetoric is partly responsible for the cooling in relations, he is taking this step to redress (the situation).” But Leylaz doubts that the talks will achieve a major breakthrough, predicting that the visit “may help Tehran and Riyadh to maintain a higher level of contacts to deal with regional issues.”
Television pundit Hasan Beheshtipour believes that the
Iranian president will try to put to rest what he called “misunderstandings” between the two countries regarding Iranian influence in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.”
Iranian newspapers simply published official reports that Ahmadinejad will be visiting Saudi Arabia later Saturday. Only one newspaper included some opinion its report. The daily ‘Tehran-e-Emrooz,’ or Today’s Tehran, said Ahmadinejad’s administration is seeking improved ties with Saudi Arabia to increase chances of resolving the Middle East conflict without much U.S. intervention and at the same time ease Saudi worries over Iran’s nuclear activities.
“Trying to help improve cool relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria to resolve the Lebanese crisis ahead of the Arab League meeting is another goal of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Saudi,” the independent Tehran-e-Emrooz said. The paper said growing tensions between Iran and the U.S. over Tehran’s nuclear activities have caused unease in Riyadh, and Tehran needs to engage Riyadh in talks so that Saudi does not support U.S. policies against Iran. The paper also said Iran and Saudi talks can help a lot in resolving the Lebanese crisis.