Saudi Arabia invites Iranian foreign minister to visit Riyadh

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 1:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 1:47am

Saudi Arabia has invited Iran's foreign minister to visit, Riyadh said yesterday, hinting at the possibility of a thaw between the Gulf's two biggest, most bitter rivals, who are at loggerheads over Syria's civil war.

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani has adopted a conciliatory tone towards Tehran's neighbours since taking office last year, but while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has visited other Gulf Arab states, he has not yet been to Saudi Arabia.

Relations between Iran and most of its Gulf Arab neighbours have been improving since Tehran agreed preliminary limits on its nuclear activity last year, but ties with arch-rival Saudi Arabia remained chilly.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference that Zarif had been invited to the kingdom but that despite Iran's past declarations of a wish to improve ties, the visit had not transpired. He did not say if Iran had formally responded.

"Any time that [Zarif] sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbour, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them," he said.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran back opposing sides in Arab political struggles including in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, where Tehran's ally President Bashar al-Assad faces an insurgency backed by Gulf Arabs.

Gulf states, like Western powers and Israel, fear Iran has been using its declared civilian nuclear energy programme as a front to covertly develop an atomic bomb capability.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also accused Iran of trying to meddle in their internal affairs by stirring up their Shi'ite communities to revolt. Iran says its nuclear programme is peaceful and denies interference in these countries' affairs.

But since taking office in August, the moderate Rowhani has overseen a conciliatory shift in Iran's hitherto confrontational foreign relations.