Ahmadinejad Saudi Arabia.
(photo credit: AP)
On his first official visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran's president held crucial talks on Saturday with King Abdullah that are being touted as a possible means to defuse sectarian tensions in Iraq and Lebanon, and prevent Iran from sliding further into isolation.
Expectations have been high that the meeting would go beyond discussions and produce tangible results, because it follows weeks of brisk diplomacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia by top envoys from both countries.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's trip also comes amid rapid developments that threaten to further isolate his country and place it under punitive sanctions because of its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
Abdullah personally met Ahmadinejad at the airport before the two headed into a meeting. The king later threw a banquet in his guests' honor, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, which did not give details about the meeting.
Saudi and Iranian analysts said cooperation between the two giants will benefit both countries, as well as the whole region. Shiite-majority Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia are on different sides of the conflicts that are threatening to ignite the Middle East - Iraq and Lebanon - and Riyadh has also expressed worry over Iran's nuclear program.
"Saudi Arabia is not a politically bankrupt country looking for a show for its foreign policies," said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi analyst. "If it didn't know that the visit would add to its political achievements, it wouldn't have been enthusiastic about it."
As a close US ally, Saudi Arabia can open up doors for Iran with the international community to help ease the mounting pressure on Teheran resulting from its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
Top diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany were to try Saturday to agree on new sanctions against Teheran in a session which a US official predicted would lead to a "substantive resolution." Despite UN Security Council sanctions and demands that Iran stop enrichment, Teheran has repeated refused to roll back its nuclear program.
The kingdom can also help put an end to the virulent anti-Shiite rhetoric of some key members in its clerical establishment. Some have urged Sunnis around the world to expel Shiites from their lands while others have declared Shiites to be infidels.
"Given that some religious circles in Saudi Arabia and other countries make statements against Shiite Muslims that can be misused by Zionist circles and the West, one can expect that one of the results of our president's visit to Saudi Arabia will be measures by the Saudis to control these circles," said a commentary on Iran's state-run radio.
Iran, meanwhile, is a close ally of Syria and a strong backer of Lebanon's Shiite Hizbullah, which is striving to bring down the US- and Saudi-backed Lebanese government. It also has close ties to the Shiite-led government in Iraq, and Washington accuses it of backing Shiite militias there.
A turnaround from Teheran could exploit those ties to help stabilize both Iraq and Lebanon and help repair a rift between Saudi Arabia and Damascus that deepened after Syria's President Bashar Assad called Arab leaders "half men" for not supporting Hizbullah in its summer war with Israel.
A breakthrough on these issues could also pave way for the success of the March 10 conference in Baghdad of Iraq's neighbors - which Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia will attend - as well as the United States and other Western powers, and the annual Arab summit, which will be held at the end of the month in Riyadh.
"Iran has proved its capability of destabilization," wrote Ghassan Sharbil, the Lebanese editor of the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat daily. "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," he added.
Riyadh broke off ties with Iran in 1988, accusing it of supporting terrorism and subversion. They were restored shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, but relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia plummeted since Ahmadinejad's election in 2005.
Since then, Arab Gulf countries have offered quiet support for moves against Iran's nuclear program that the United States and its allies fear is aimed at creating weapons. Iran says its program is solely for peaceful purposes.
The chill in relations is partly due to Ahmadinejad's tough anti-Western talk, which has raised suspicions among Sunnis that Teheran is trying to expand its influence in the region.
"Since Ahmadinejad's harsh rhetoric is partly responsible for the cooling in relations, he is (now) taking this step to redress (the situation)," said independent Iranian writer Saeed Leylaz.