DUBAI: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani held talks with the leader of the nearby sultanate of Oman on Wednesday, his first official trip to an Arab country since taking office last year.
The visit is aimed at boosting bilateral relations between the two countries, though it also has the potential to further ease tensions between the Islamic Republic and Western powers. Oman stands out among Gulf Arab states for its ability to balance friendly relations between the two.
Rouhani, a moderate who has vowed to improve Tehran's relations with its neighbors, was accompanied by a high-ranking economic delegation for the two-day visit.
"Relations with Islamic countries and particularly neighboring countries are of extraordinary importance for us," Rouhani told reporters shortly before departing from Tehran.
Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, welcomed the Iranian leader at the al-Alam palace, according to the official Oman News Agency. The colorfully decorated complex is nestled near the capital Muscat's mountain-ringed harbor on the edge of the Gulf of Oman.
Iran and Oman lie on opposite sides of the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf that is the route for one fifth of the world's oil.
Saudi Arabia and other Western-allied Arab nations in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council are wary of Iran's influence in the region. Oman is a member of the GCC, but it has traditionally worked to cultivate warm ties with Iran and has at times acted as a mediator between Tehran and the West.
The sultanate was the site of some of the secret talks between Iranian and American representatives that preceded a landmark nuclear deal in Geneva in November. Under that interim agreement, Iran agreed to curb parts of its nuclear program for six months in exchange for some relief from Western sanctions.
Tehran disputes allegations that it aims to develop atomic weapons. It says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, such as producing electricity, and for scientific and medical research.
The terms of a broader deal involving long-term restrictions on nuclear work in exchange for an end to all economic sanctions are still being worked out.
Oman also played a key role in the release of three American hikers in 2010 and 2011 who were detained by Iran while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border.
Sultan Qaboos traveled to Tehran in August, becoming the first foreign leader to visit Rouhani since he took office. On that visit, he said his country was prepared to develop trade routes through Iran between Oman and Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Rouhani's trip follows a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to several Gulf states, including Oman, in December. Senior Iranian leaders have yet to visit Gulf heavyweight Saudi Arabia.