Iranian President to Visit Saudi Arabia

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected in Saudi Arabia this weekend a Saudi Foreign Ministry official said Thursday of the visit that will cap weeks of intensive talks between the two countries to resolve simmering conflicts in the region.

The Saudi official said Ahmadinejad will arrive Saturday for a one-day visit. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give statements to the media.

Iran's official IRNA news on Wednesday quoted Iran's ambassador to Riyadh, Mohammad Hosseini, as saying that Ahmadinejad's visit to Saudi was "imminent" but didn't give any further details.

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Al-Watan, a Saudi newspaper, quoted unidentified Iranian officials Thursday as saying the visit will take place "next week." The Saudi week begins on Saturday. The Saudi Foreign Ministry was closed Thursday, the beginning of the Saudi weekend.

Ahmadinejad's trip will follow weeks of talks between the kingdom and its longtime rival Iran in a bid to defuse several conflicts in the region, including those in Lebanon and Iraq — two crises points that have raised Saudi fears of a sectarian explosion.

The visit would come just weeks before Saudi hosts the Arab League summit Mar. 28-29. Iran is not an Arab country — its language and culture are Persian — but has a role and strong interest in many of the conflicts in the Arab world.

The new diplomacy has been credited with defusing a general strike called by Lebanon's Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah after the country erupted into violence a few weeks ago.

Iran is a strong backer of Hezbollah, which is waging a campaign of protests to bring down the government, which is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Tehran also has close ties to Shiite political parties in Iraq, and Washington accuses it of backing Shiite militias there.

Last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said his country wants Iran to take a more neutral stance between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the Mideast to prevent a dangerous increase in sectarian tensions.

Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is worried that Shiite-Sunni fighting in Iraq, with whom it shares a long border, and sectarian tensions in Lebanon could explode out of control and damage its own interests or even lead the U.S. to attack Iran, which would have repercussions across the Middle East.

Some Lebanese politicians have recently said Saudi-Iranian contacts to find a solution to the Lebanese crisis are continuing, though no concrete results have so far emerged.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss said Wednesday after returning from Tehran that Iran was ready to cooperate with Saudi Arabia and probably Syria to help the Lebanese relaunch a national dialogue to solve the political crisis.

Legislator Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, expressed hope that Saudi-Iranian consultations would eventually produce "a positive solution" to the Lebanese crisis.

Asked if Saudi-Iranian contacts had produced any concrete results regarding the Lebanese crisis, Hariri told reporters Wednesday after meeting the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Brussels, "God willing. In my view, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran are very keen on the region and have a good idea about a solution."