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Monday, May 17, 1999 Published at 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK

World: Middle East

Iran and Saudi Arabia strengthen ties

Khatami is welcomed by Crown Prince Abdullah in Jeddah

On day three of his ground-breaking state visit to Saudi Arabia, President Mohammad Khatami made a pilgrimage before dawn in Mecca's grand mosque.

Twelve years ago, the grand mosque was the scene of a bloody clash between chanting Iranian demonstrators and Saudi security forces.

Nearly 400 Iranians were killed, leaving a legacy of ill-will between the two countries.

Analysts agree that President Khatami's high-profile visit to Iran's former enemy, now in its third day, has so far been an outstanding success.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia said the visit had opened the door for strengthened relations between the two countries.

He was speaking after talks in Jeddah with President 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"
King Fahd 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 Iranian leader was greeted on arrival with embraces and kisses by Saudi Princes.

The two country's Foreign Ministers, Prince Saud al-Faisal and Iran's Kamal Kharrazi, have held close talks.

Prince Saud said there was potentially no limit to the extent of ties between the two states. He 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
"The main ingredient for establishing solid relations is confidence-building. For that we need to settle outstanding problems peacefully and amicably," he said.

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

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.

The oil factor

Oil, the mainstay of both country's economies, has also been a unifying factor during the trip.

Iran's oil minister met with his Saudi counterpart to build on their new-found co-operation in shoring up falling prices.

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.

Past wariness

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

Iran's old revolutionary rhetoric alarmed the Saudi monarchy, and relations reached an all-time low after the killings at Mecca.

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.

[ image: Visiting Sayyida Zeinab's tomb in Damascus]
Visiting Sayyida Zeinab's tomb in Damascus
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 long sought to rid the Gulf of its Western military presence and has been urging Gulf states to join it instead in a regional defence pact.

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.

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.

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

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