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Saturday, May 15, 1999 Published at 21:35 GMT 22:35 UK

World: Middle East

Khatami visit opens Saudi door

Historic moment: Khatami welcomed by Crown Prince Abdullah in Jeddah

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has said the ground-breaking visit by the Iranian president has opened the door for strengthened relations between the two countries.

He was speaking after talks in Jeddah with President Mohammad Khatami, now on the most significant leg of an eight-day tour of Arab states.

The BBC's Frank Gardner: "The visit is the work of two years of diplomacy"
The king said: "The door is wide open to develop and strengthen relations between the two countries in the interests of the two peoples and the Muslim world."

The visit is the culmination of two years of careful diplomacy; it is the first by any high-ranking Iranian official since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal described the meeting as "excellent" but added that much work was needed to rebuild trust between the two governments.

[ image: President Mohammad Khatami: Building bridges]
President Mohammad Khatami: Building bridges
He said: "The main ingredient for establishing solid relations is confidence-building. For that we need to settle outstanding problems peacefully and amicably.

"In the future, if the two governments have the political will, there are no limits to co-operation with Iran."

The talks focused on oil and economic co-operation, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.

"I believe there will be some documents to be signed, as well as extensive discussions," he said.

Mr Khatami said relations were growing day by day between the two countries. He has invited King Fahd for a return visit to Iran, the Saudi news agency reported.

During his stay, Mr Khatami is expected to visit the Muslim holy places, Makkah and al-Medina, to perform religious rites. He will also tour the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, in Saudi's Eastern Province.

Past wariness

Until the election of Mr Khatami, a moderate, in 1997, such a visit would have been unthinkable, says BBC Gulf Correspondent Frank Gardner.

Iran's old revolutionary rhetoric alarmed the Saudi monarchy, and relations reached an all-time low when Saudi security forces opened fire on Iranian demonstrators in Mecca in 1987, killing 400.

Saudi Arabia also hinted at Iranian involvement in terrorist bomb attacks against US and Saudi targets in the kingdom in 1995-96.

But earlier this year the two countries acted together to cut oil production and shore up falling oil prices.

Saudi Arabia has shown support for the moderate president in Iran's internal conflict between reformers and conservatives.

But the main area of dispute between the kingdom and the Islamic republic still remains the deployment of US troops on Saudi soil.

Iran has suggested military co-operation between opposite sides of the Gulf to replace what it sees as the destabilisation of the American presence.

Special relationship with Syria

Mr Khatami's eight-day tour of Gulf states began in Syria where he and Syrian President Asad issued a joint communique underlining agreements on trade, economic and cultural co-operation.

[ image: Visiting Sayyida Zeinab's tomb in Damascus]
Visiting Sayyida Zeinab's tomb in Damascus
The Iranian president met hardline Palestinian leaders opposed to the Arab-Israeli peace process, telling them time was on the side of the Palestinian nation and the resistance movement.

He also met the leader of the Hezbollah guerrillas, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, hailing the group as an "ideological and humanitarian movement".

Iran strongly supports the Hezbollah guerrillas in their efforts to dislodge Israeli forces from Lebanon.

Syria and Iran have for many years had a strategic relationship, based on a shared suspicion of their mutual neighbour, Iraq, and hostility to Israel.

Correspondents say Iran was reassuring Syria the special relationship would not suffer as Iran moves closer to other Arab countries.

Gulf security force

Mr Khatami's trip will continue with a visit to Qatar.

The tour is a reflection of recent improvements in Iran's relations with Arab states, particularly in the Gulf.

Iranian officials are seeing it at least partly in the context of their call for a collective Gulf security arrangement, excluding foreign forces.

They concede that such an agreement is still a long way off and that major obstacles remain to be overcome, not least the continuing dispute with the United Arab Emirates over Iran's claims to three Gulf islands.

But they believe the idea is no longer simply a slogan, and President Khatami's visits to Saudi Arabia and Qatar could help to pave the way by building confidence, easing mistrust and reducing past tension.

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