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Iranian president's Arab tour seen as sign of thaw in relations

TEHRAN, May 11 (AFP) - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami leaves Thursday for Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on a tour seen as a sign of a thaw in the Islamic Republic's relations with the Arab world.

"President Khatami's visits to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are expected to have positive results in relations between Iran and Arab nations," the official IRNA news agency said in a commentary.

The visits will be the first by Khatami to countries in the region, and the first by an Iranian head of state to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The tour comes 18 months after the Iranian "enfant terrible" returned to the Moslem fold as host of a summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in December 1997.

The deep mistrust between Shiite Moslem Iran and Sunni Moslem Saudi Arabia has eased since the moderate Khatami was elected in May 1997 and began moving to forge greater links with the outside world.

The aim has been to restore Iran's status as a regional power by changing the rhetoric and policies of the 1980s of "exporting revolution."

Khatami kicks off his tour with a visit to Syria, Iran's most prominent ally in the Middle East.

Islamic Republic Iran and secular Syria share concerns over their common neighbour Iraq, and are united in their opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Iranian ambassador to Syria, Hossein Sheikholeslam, indicated Saturday that Khatami and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad will discuss the Iraqi opposition, relations between Iran and Egypt and Syria's ties with Turkey.

The support for Lebanese guerrilla groups seeking to oust Israeli troops from southern Lebanon will also be a highly sensitive issue on the agenda.

Iran and Syria are considered the major backers of the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah. "Syrian-Iranian cooperation is one of the greatest pillars of support for the resistance and has allowed it to continue its armed struggle to achieve its objectives," said Hossein Sheikholeslam.

Khatami is also expected to meet the leaders of Palestinian opposition groups based in the Syrian capital, notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine headed by George Habash, the ambassador said.

The trip to Riyadh is quasi-historic, Iran having frequently denounced its pro-Western Sunni neighbour in the past as the symbol of "American Islam."

The rapprochement between the two countries peaked last week with a visit by the Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz, to Tehran.

The two countries warmly dicussed pursuing promotion of political and economic relations, but a proposition by Iran for creating a joint defence force was received with reticence by Riyadh.

The increase in oil prices, the main source of income for both Tehran and Riyadh, was another preoccupation for the two OPEC heavyweights.

Qatar has traditionally enjoyed good relations with Iran.

Doha in the past has repeatedly called for a rapprochement between Iran and the United States, an issue which has been raised more and more here since Khatami's election.

Khatami's Arab tour comes just after a summit of Gulf Arab leaders in Jeddah focused on rapprochement between the Gulf monarchies and Iran, despite the reservations of Abu Dhabi which has an islands dispute with Tehran.


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