Iran shows openness to improving Saudi ties

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Iran on Wednesday appeared to welcome an offer by Saudi Arabia to thaw relations between the two countries, a day after the kingdom's top diplomat invited his Iranian counterpart to visit.

Tehran, however, stopped short of confirming plans for a trip to the kingdom by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Sunni-ruled and U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia has long been wary of Shiite powerhouse Iran's influence in the region. Relations between the two countries have been further strained by the civil war in Syria. Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-ruled Gulf neighbors back rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's government, which is supported by Tehran.

Saudi Arabia took a step toward breaking the ice on Tuesday, when Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said he had invited his Iranian counterpart to visit and was awaiting a reply.

"I hope that Iran contributes to stability in the region," Prince Saud was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency. "Iran is a neighbor country and we have relations with it. We talk to them and hope to end any differences between the two countries."

In recent months, Zarif visited several Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Oman in a sign of improving relations with Iran's Sunni neighbors.

Tehran has expressed an interest in working more closely with Saudi Arabia too, but the kingdom had previously shown little appetite for boosting ties.

Besides its differences with Iran over Syria, Saudi Arabia sees a stronger Iran as a threat to its own influence in the region. Riyadh also has accused Iran of backing Shiite uprisings in neighboring Yemen and Bahrain.

Iran's deputy foreign minister, Amir Abdollahian, was quoted on Wednesday by al-Alam, the Arabic-language channel of Iran's state TV, as saying that Iran has not received any written invitation from Saudi Arabia so far.

"Iran welcomes dialogue and meeting to help resolve regional disputes, remove misunderstandings and further promote bilateral ties," he said.

Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nowbakht also appeared to welcome Riyadh's outreach.

"Saudi Arabia is a neighbor. Strengthening ties and good neighborly relations with it is to the interests of the region," the official IRNA news agency quoted Nowbakht as saying Wednesday. "The will of the government is that relations with Saudi Arabia be promoted to meet the interests of the two countries."

Zarif, who was in Vienna on Wednesday for another round of negotiations with world powers on Iran's controversial nuclear program, did not immediately comment the Saudi outreach to his country.

___

Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareini contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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