Iranian president to visit Saudi Arabia on Saturday

visit will culminate weeks of intensive diplomatic activities spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.

Ahmadinejad 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Ahmadinejad 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Another top-level meeting is slated for the Middle East as Iran's president heads to Saudi Arabia on Saturday for discussions with King Abdullah - an indication that weeks of talks between their envoys on simmering conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon have made some headway. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected Saturday for a one-day visit, a Saudi Foreign Ministry official said speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Meanwhile, Iran's ambassador to Riyadh, Mohammad Hosseini, said Ahmadinejad's visit to Saudi was "imminent," according to Iran's official IRNA news agency. The visit will culminate weeks of intensive diplomatic activities spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, including Iranian-Saudi envoy talks, a meeting between Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the groundbreaking Palestinian accord reached in the Saudi city of Mecca to halt Palestinian infighting. It precedes a conference of Iraq's neighbors - which Iran and Syria will also attend - as well as the United States and Britain in Baghdad on March 10, and an Arab summit in Riyadh at the end of the month. Ahmadinejad's visit to Riyadh comes at a very sensitive time and may reflect that he is seeking for a way out of an ostracized corner. The United States is pushing for more UN sanctions on Teheran over its failure to comply with demands to halt its controversial uranium enrichment program that the West fears is used for nuclear arms making. Violence in Iraq is escalating, Shi'ite-Sunni tensions are simmering across the Mideast and Lebanon remains tense as the opposition tries to bring down the Saudi-backed government. Although the United States - which has built up militarily in the Gulf these past two months - has said it has no plans to strike Iran, it has also refused to rule out any option. "The region is facing several potentially explosive crises points and these are all issues of common concern for Riyadh and Iran," said Saudi analyst, Khaled al-Dakhil. "Saudi Arabia has become the focus of the diplomatic activity in the region, and therefore, Iran should try to keep an open channel with Saudi Arabia and try to use it at the regional and international level." But keeping diplomatic channels open has not been Ahmadinejad's forte. Speaking on Thursday at a lecture during his visit to Sudan, Ahmadinejad blamed the United States and Israel for the world's problems. "There is no place in the world that suffers from divisions and wars unless America or the Zionists' fingerprints are seen there," said Ahmadinejad. "Our strength and the cornerstone of the victory is in our (Muslims') unity ... we have to pay attention to the devils who want to cause divisions among us." "They want to keep science in their hands only ... they don't want the rest of the world to progress," Ahmadinejad said in a defense of his nuclear activities. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is worried Shi'ite-Sunni fighting in Iraq - with which the kingdom shares a long border - and sectarian tensions in Lebanon could veer out of control and send shockwaves throughout the Middle East. Another Saudi official said Ahmadinejad's trip to Saudi Arabia may be the result of a possible Iranian realization that harmony - rather than hegemony - is needed for the region's stability and may even help ward off sectarian tensions that could ultimately work against the groups which Iran supports. Shi'ites make up only 15 percent of Muslims worldwide but they are a majority in Persian Iran. Sunnis increasingly fear Iran's growing influence in the region. Iran is a strong backer of Lebanon's Hizbullah, which is striving to bring down the Beirut US and Saudi-backed government. Teheran also has close ties to Shi'ite political parties in Iraq, and Washington accuses it of backing Shi'ite militias there. "The fact that the (Saudi) king would meet with him will raise Ahmadinejad's status domestically and internationally as a ... responsible statesman," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Knowing the style of Saudi diplomacy, they won't give him this carrot without having received certain assurances that he will pursue a reasonable path." Saudi officials have not divulged any details about negotiations with the Iranians. But some Lebanese politicians have recently said Iran and Saudi Arabia are still trying to find a solution to the Lebanese crisis, though no concrete results have so far emerged. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss said Wednesday after returning from Teheran that Iran was ready to cooperate with Saudi Arabia, and probably Syria, to help a national dialogue in Lebanon to resolve the crisis. Legislator Saad Hariri, head of Lebanon's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, said he hoped the Saudi-Iran summit would work toward this. "I think political dialogue is important, and I think that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia plays a pivotal role in the region," Hariri told reporters during a visit to Brussels. "The Kingdom has put all its weight to resolve the current crisis in Lebanon and we hope that this visit will lead to a solution."