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Saudi defence minister ends landmark visit to Tehran

TEHRAN, May 5 (AFP) - Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz left Tehran on Wednesday, ending a four-day landmark visit during which Iranian leaders repeatedly called for a defence pact with Riyadh.

"Riyadh's main objective was to discuss means to promote and strengthen bilateral relations with Iran," Prince Sultan said before departing for Islamabad.

He said the Saudi kingdom focuses on "serving Islam, Arabs and the world."

"Differences of opinion between countries is natural...(but) we should all take steps to promote the interests of the Arab and Islamic worlds" he said, quoted by the official IRNA news agency.

It said the prince was seen off by his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkhani as well as First Vice President Hassan Habibi.

"Contrary to what the general opinion might be, Tehran and Riyadh share many similar objectives," Habibi said.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for a defence alliance with the Saudi kingdom which echoed an overture last week by Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani.

But Prince Sultan played down the suggestion, underlining that the two nations were still in the early stages of establishing strong ties.

"The question of military cooperation is not easy between two countries whose relations were cut for years," the prince said Sunday, stressing that they should start with "economic, social and cultural cooperation."

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei roundly criticized the Western military presence in the Gulf during talks with Prince Sultan, saying that it was one of several "significant areas for mutual cooperation."

Relations between Tehran and Riyadh have improved considerably since the May 1997 election of the moderate Khatami, who is due to visit Saudi Arabia during a three-nation Arab tour beginning next week.


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