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Thursday, May 20, 1999 Published at 20:42 GMT 21:42 UK

World: Middle East

Khatami concludes historic Gulf tour

President Khatami on Qatari soil with the Emir: An historic moment

By Middle East Correspondent Jim Muir

President Mohammad Khatami's tour of Arab states is being seen as a major step forward in Iran's relations with the Arab side of the Gulf.

He left the Gulf state of Qatar on Thursday after an eight-day tour which had also taken him to Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The Qatar leg ended in a series of agreements covering cooperation in a wide range of fields from labour, investment and commerce to sport and tourism.

[ image:  ]
The two countries also agreed on an exchange of visits by military leaders.

For the past decade Qatar has been among the most prominent of the Arab states of the Gulf, advocating closer cooperation with Iran, including in defence.

Breaking new ground

Mr Khatami's visit to Qatar - the first of its kind - was described by Iranian officials as historic.

But it was on his earlier trip to Saudi Arabia - another first - that Mr Khatami probably broke the most important new ground. This is even though the visit did not yield concrete signed agreements on specific issues.

[ image: Meeting with King Fahd could help end two decades of mistrust]
Meeting with King Fahd could help end two decades of mistrust
The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Feisal, said the visit had gone a long way towards developing mutual trust and would have a positive impact on the whole region.

He hinted that this could help bring about a solution to such thorny problems as the three Gulf islands occupied by Iran since the early 1970s, which the Arabs insist belong to the United Arab Emirates.

Both Arab and Iranian officials agreed that President Khatami's tour had generated a great deal of goodwill, helping create a climate where political, economic and even security cooperation may flourish.

Tehran, or at least Mr Khatami and his moderates allies, are particularly keen to explore the establishment of a collective Gulf security pact.

There are constraints on both sides - the hardliners in Iran and, on the Arab side, strategic dependence on Washington.

But Mr Khatami's tour has certainly carried the process of regional detente an important step forward.

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