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Wednesday 14 December 2011

Iran, Saudi Officials Hold Rare Talks


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Iran's intelligence chief visited Riyadh for talks with senior Saudi officials on security and political issues, a rare high-level session amid growing tensions between two Persian Gulf powers that have competed for influence in the region.
[SAUDIRAN]Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi interior minister, left, greets Iranian intelligence chief Heidar Moslehi in Riyadh on Monday.
Saudi officials have intensified accusations against Iran in recent weeks, charging Tehran with inciting political unrest and a potential nuclear-arms race in the Middle East.
The meeting in the Saudi capital "helped us exchange ideas and policies about mutual security and politics and also clear some misunderstandings," said Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast.
In the talks, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who is the Saudi interior minister, and intelligence director Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz discussed "issues of common concern" with Iran intelligence chief Heidar Moslehi, according to a Saudi Press Agency account published Tuesday.
The participants in the meeting, which took place Monday, suggested the discussions were substantial. Mr. Moslehi is an appointee of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and any message he brought to the Saudis would likely have come from the top. Prince Muqrin, meanwhile, holds particular influence in Saudi Arabia as one of the youngest surviving sons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern, Sunni Muslim-led Saudi kingdom.
Officials in Saudi Arabia say Shiite-dominated Iran is inciting trouble among the Shiite populations of Gulf Arab countries. Iran and Saudi Arabia have sparred over Iranian support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and over what Saudi officials allege is Iranian interference with Shiite rebels of Yemen, Shia political parties and militias of Iraq, and the Shia majority of Bahrain.
The rivalry flared in Bahrain this year when Saudi Arabia sent troops to back the neighboring Sunni monarchy against a predominantly Shiite uprising that officials from both Arab nations, as well as from the U.S., said was supported by Iran.
Saudi Arabia also faced concerns about its own Shiite population as popular uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring swept the region. Tehran denied the charges of interference.
More recently, Riyadh has campaigned for condemnation of what Saudis and the U.S. say was an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Iran denied the allegation, saying it was politically charged. On Tuesday, the U.S. ramped up its own pressure on Tehran, blacklisting two senior officials Washington says were responsible for human-rights abuses in the crackdown on Iranian protesters after 2009 elections.
Saudi Arabia and Iran also clashed over oil production at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. On Tuesday, Iran's Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi said he met Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi in Vienna ahead of an OPEC meeting on Wednesday to discuss production policy.
Charges that Iran is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program have dominated the public foreign-policy comments of Saudi officials in recent weeks, after the United Nations nuclear agency cited what it said was evidence that Iran was working toward building a bomb.
Gulf leaders are set to discuss bolstering a regional military force, in part due to unease over Iran's nuclear program, at a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting this month in Riyadh. Saudi King Abdullah met with the head of the six-nation GCC, Abdul Latif Zayani, on Tuesday, the Saudi news agency said.
Former Saudi intelligence director Prince Turki al-Faisal said last week that Arab Gulf states may be compelled to develop their own programs for weapons of mass destruction, if Iran moves ahead with what he alleged was a nuclear-arms program. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.
Prince Muqrin, the Saudi intelligence chief, told The Wall Street Journal last week that Iran was "playing with fire." He shook his head when asked if Saudi leaders would support any pre-emptive attacks on Iran's nuclear sites. "We will be on the line to defend our soil, and that's it," Prince Muqrin said.
Earlier, in a speech to Gulf officials, he said Iran's nuclear program at a minimum was triggering a costly and unnecessary arms race in the Gulf. "I really, sincerely hope Iranians listen to their wise people," he said, referring to those in the Iraqi government who counsel restraint.
In his speech last week, Prince Muqrin that military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities would lead to massive disruption of the global oil supply and "gigantic chaos" world-wide.
Most prominent Saudi officials have stopped short of matching their warnings to Iran to fully open its nuclear program to inspection with threats of military action if it doesn't.
Despite longstanding suspicions, Iran and Saudi Arabia maintain contacts under a late 1990s security pact, said Saudi political analyst Abdullah al-Shamri. High-level Saudi-Iranian contacts spiked briefly in 2007, when a now-challenged conclusion by a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had likely ended its nuclear-weapons program led Saudi King Abdullah to welcome Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh.
Maintenance of diplomatic and security contacts may have helped give officials of both countries the venue to discuss significant issues on Monday, Mr. Shamri said.
"I think there were indications from our side the last two months that the patience of Saudi Arabia might run out," Mr. Shamri said. "Iran may be wise to sit down" with the Saudis, he said.
—Farnaz Fassihi and Hassan Hafidh contributed to this article.

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