President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will visit Saudi Arabia on Saturday for a summit meeting with King Abdullah intended to tackle the Middle East's growing sectarian and political crises, Iranian officials said Thursday.
The visit, Ahmadinejad's first state visit to Saudi Arabia, was initiated by Iran, said a former Saudi official with knowledge of the discussions. It marks the culmination of months of diplomatic efforts by the two regional powers, as well as other Arab countries, to settle the political standoff in Lebanon, cool sectarian violence in Iraq and possibly even avert a looming confrontation with the United States.
To some the trip is seen as a defensive move by an increasingly isolated Iran while to others it marks the start of another public relations offensive for the bellicose president.
"When the views of the two countries get closer, they can play an influential role in the chaotic situation of the Islamic world and the Middle East," Mohammad Hosseini, Iran's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the official Iranian news agency, IRNA. "Unrest is increasing in the Middle East and if the situation continues, it will become a threat for all the countries in the region."
A Saudi official confirmed Ahmadinejad's visit, which will include a meeting with Abdullah on Sunday, but the official Saudi news agency, SPA, made no mention of the trip, adding weight to the theory that the visit was an Iranian initiative.
Rumors of a likely meeting between the two leaders had been circulating in Saudi Arabia for the past week, several analysts said, but the exact date appears to have been set on Thursday, just days before the United Nations is expected to begin deliberating tougher sanctions on Iran for its continued uranium enrichment efforts in violation of U.N. resolutions.
The announcement also comes just two days after the United States agreed in principle to hold a high-level meeting with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, to help stabilize Iraq, setting the stage for the highest-level contact between American and Iranian officials in more than two years.
The American decision to participate in that Iraqi regional meeting in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 10 was unconnected to the Saudi-Iranian summit talks, American officials said. They claimed to be untroubled by the summit plans despite their strong mistrust of Ahmadinejad.
Abdullah and Ahmadinejad are expected to discuss ways of ending the political standoff in Lebanon between the American-backed government of Fouad Siniora and Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran. Both countries are also concerned that growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region could fuel further instability.
"The last visit by an Iranian official to Riyadh was by national security chief Ali Larijani last month, but the Iranians were left feeling quite unsatisfied," said Adel al-Toraifi, a Riyadh-based Saudi analyst with close ties to the government.