Middle East

Rouhani extends hand to Gulf monarchies

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (R) gestures as he sits next to Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawai bin Abdullah during his visit to Muscat March 13, 2014. (REUTERS/Oman News Agency/ONA)

MUSCAT: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sought Thursday to mend fences between his country and Gulf monarchies distrustful of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its support of the Syrian regime.

Winding up a two-day visit to Oman, Rouhani said the Islamic Republic offered “a hand of fraternity to all the countries of the region.”

“Relations with one country should not grow at the expense of another. We want to see the countries of the region live in peace, understanding and friendship,” Rouhani told a business gathering in Muscat.

The sultanate maintains strong links with Iran and has played an important role as mediator between Western countries and Tehran.

But other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which besides Oman also comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have cool relations with Tehran.

Its Arab neighbors have expressed concern about the reliability of Iran’s sole nuclear power plant at Bushehr in the southern Gulf and the risk of radioactive leaks should it be hit by a major earthquake.

Like world powers, they also fear a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear drive, despite repeated assertions by Tehran that its atomic ambitions are peaceful.

“Cooperation and rapprochement would benefit the whole region,” said Rouhani, adding that his country was “open to investors from the region, especially Omanis.”Oman and Iran are seeking to expand trade, which reached $1 billion last year, and bilateral investments, which they expect will top $10 billion by the end of this year, Iranian Ambassador Ali Akbar Sibeveih said Monday.

Oil- and gas-rich Iran has been struggling to export its products due to strict U.S. and European sanctions on Tehran over its controversial nuclear program.

Iran and Oman signed a preliminary agreement Wednesday to build a $1 billion, 200-kilometer submarine pipeline to import gas from the Islamic Republic.

In a meeting with university professors, Rouhani denounced “terrorism” and called for dialogue to coordinate the fight against it.

“All differences can be resolved through dialogue,” he said, pointing out that talks had helped end the deadlock in Iran’s nuclear negotiations with Western countries.

Earlier, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made fresh overtures to the Gulf monarchies.

“Our message to the other countries of the Persian Gulf is a message of friendship, fraternity and cooperation,” Zarif said.

“Iran is ready for strong and fraternal relations with all the states of the region,” said Zarif, who has embarked on a charm offensive toward the Gulf since Rouhani became Iran’s president in August.

In December, he toured Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.

But Zarif has still not visited regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, which accuses Tehran of fomenting opposition among its Shiite-majority population. Zarif has said he is ready to visit Riyadh, but the Saudis remain cool to the idea.

Relations between Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia have long been strained as both countries vie for regional dominance.

In a joint statement issued at the end of Rouhani’s visit, the president and Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos, “stressed on the need to implement cooperation programs and develop relations on all levels.”

The sultanate hosted secret talks between Tehran and Washington ahead of the signing in Geneva last November of a breakthrough interim accord between world powers and Iran on its nuclear program.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran must make “tough decisions” with the negotiations over the nuclear deal, which are due to resume next week.

His comments came as he was grilled by senators from the appropriations committee over the talks between Iran and the P5+1 group, which are due to start up again in Vienna Monday.

“There’s some very tough decisions the Iranians are going to have to make – very tough – in order to meet the international community’s standard for certainty as to the peacefulness of this program,” Kerry said.

The top U.S. diplomat said he had contacted his counterparts around the world amid reports of trade delegations going to Iran.

“We have made it crystal clear that Iran is not open for business. They have accepted that,” Kerry said. “They are not cutting deals. There are people who have traveled, but there have not been new deals.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2014, on page 1.




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