Rouhani travels to Oman in first official visit to Arab state

Muscat enjoys closest ties with Tehran among Arab Gulf states and played important role in setting up nuclear deal with the West.

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani travels to Oman on March 12, 2014, on his first official visit to a Gulf Arab state. Ray Stubblebine/ Reuters
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TEHRAN // Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani travels to Oman on Wendesday on his first official visit to an Arab country since taking office in August last year, the Iranian foreign ministry said.

Mr Rouhani will be accompanied by an economic delegation on the two-day visit, which aims to boost relations, foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said.

Mr Rouhani, a moderate, has repeatedly vowed to improve relations with neighbouring countries.

Oman has traditionally had good relations with Iran and acted as a mediator between Tehran and the West. It was revealed last Novemeber that Oman hosted secret talks between between Iran and the United States that led to an interim deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme, which the West suspects may be aimed at developing atomic weapons.

The announcement of Mr Rouhani’s trip to Oman followed unconfirmed reports that he would soon travel to Saudi Arabia. While officials in Tehran said no such trip is currently being planned, they left open the possibility that it would.

“We do not confirm the reports about Mr Rouhani’s trip to Saudi Arabia. But the priority of our foreign policy is based on good relations with our neighbors including Saudi Arabia,” Ms Afkham told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday.

She said Mr Rouhani had not receive any invitation from Saudi officials, rejecting media reports that he had accepted an invitation to visit the kingdom.

Already strained relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, rival regional powerhouses, worsened under Mr Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahadinejad, due to regional policy differences. In particular, Tehran backs the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in that country’s civil war, whereas Riyadh is supporting the rebels.

Relations deteriorated further after confidential US diplomatic cables released in 2010 by the WikiLeaks whistleblower website suggested that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah had urged the US in 2008 to “cut off the head of the snake” in reference to Iran’s nuclear programme.

Mr Rouhani’s foreign minister. Mohammed Javad Zarif, who visited Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE in a tour of GCC states in early December, indicated at the time that he would be willing to visit Saudi Arabia as well to mend relations, although no date was set.

Ms Afkham said Mr Zarif’s recent trips to the neighbouring Gulf states “declared Iran’s readiness for visiting Saudi Arabia. The readiness didn’t lead to a visit at that time.”

Asked whether Mr Rouhani’s administration welcomed the recent intiative by the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to travel to Saudi Arabia as a messenger of goodwill, Ms Afkham said,

“In order to boost ties with Saudis in different aspects such as political and economic, we are ready to use all our resources.”