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Iranian President Reaches Out with Saudi Visit

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Iranian President Reaches Out with Saudi Visit

Middle East

Iranian President Reaches Out with Saudi Visit

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is paying his first official visit to Saudi Arabia, where he'll be meeting with King Abdullah. Months in preparation, the meeting is likely to center on the growing sectarian and political tensions in the Middle East.

And another important meeting is scheduled for the region. This week the Bush administration announced that the U.S. will take part in regional talks over the future of Iraq. The first meeting will be held in Baghdad March 10th, followed by a second, higher-level meeting in April which will be attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria.

Both are countries with which the U.S. has tense relations. We're joined on the line now by Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper. Welcome to the program.

MR. RAMI KHOURI (Editor-at-Large, Daily Star Newspaper): Thank you. Glad to be with you.

NEARY: Let's start with the meeting this weekend. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is visiting Saudi Arabia to talk with King Abdullah, among others. What is on the agenda?

Mr. KHOURI: Really the future of the Middle East and maybe the future of the world. I mean that's slightly exaggerated, but not too much but tensions in the Middle East, especially about the oil and gas-producing region in the Gulf there are getting very high.

And the militarization of the region, the conflicts, the militias, the wars, the ideological confrontations, are spreading all over the region. Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Iraq. And Saudi Arabia and Iran represent really the two different polls, Saudi Arabia being a sort of a proxy for the U.S. and Iran representing the Islamist groups around the region, Syria and others.

So for them to talk is really significant.

NEARY: How did it get to this point where people are now willing to talk rather than just fight?

Mr. KHOURI: I think everybody has been really scared by the sectarian tensions and killing and violence that seems to have spread from Iraq throughout much of the region. It's most often that the United States put that through the prism of Sunni-Shia tensions, but it's really much wider than that.

In Lebanon, in Palestine, in Iraq, in Sudan, in Somalia, all of these things are now linked together in a regional dynamic that is really scaring everybody. And people were playing brinkmanship and really they got the brink and they looked over and it scared the daylights, I think, out of everybody. The Lebanon war this summer was an example.

And they all realized that they have a shared interest in promoting a stable Middle East.

NEARY: And of course up until now the Bush administration has resisted meeting with Iran and Syria. Do you think this same fear that you're talking about, about the Middle East unraveling, is at least part of what prompted the turnabout in the Bush administration in agreeing to participate in talks?

Mr. KHOURI: I think it must be. You know, there's two trends, I think, that are probably very worrying to the United States. I think they're terrified by the fact that most of the public opinion in most of the world is critical of the United States. And it's not just Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East. This is people all over the world who are now critical of and worried about and even afraid of the United States.

And the second problem is - for the U.S. is that people all over the Middle East - Sunnis, Shiites, Baathists, secularist, Islamists, all shades of opinion - are not only defying the United States and Israel but actually prepared to fight against it militarily if the need comes to that. And that was one of the lessons of the Lebanon war this summer and the tremendous support that Hezbollah had.

So I think people realize that this trend is really no good for anybody, the Americans, the Israelis, the Arabs, the Iranians. And I suspect that people are just exploring, can we solve these issues through diplomatic negotiations?

NEARY: Now, the regional talks coming up in about a week were initially proposed by Baghdad, not Washington. How significant is that? And how will those talks be affected by the U.S. presence?

Mr. KHOURI: The symbolic importance is really huge. The potential importance is huge. It's in everybody's interest to stabilize Iraq. I mean everybody is going to suffer. And already we've seen this, the spillover from Iraq is hurting everybody in terms of refuges, political extremism, terrorism. All of these issues are a threat in the immediate term and in the long term to everybody.

So Iraq has become something really much more urgent now to everybody in the region. And I think the Americans have realized that they can't do much more in Iraq and they've got to start getting out. And perhaps they're trying to use their exit strategy as a positive asset to engage others in the region.

NEARY: Rami Khouri is editor-at-large of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. Thanks for joining us, Rami.

Mr. KHOURI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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