Iranian FM ‘cannot’ take up Saudi invitation

Mohammad Javad Zarif says proposed dates clashed with planned nuclear negotiations with world powers

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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday he could not take up an invitation to visit regional rival Saudi Arabia because the proposed dates clashed with planned nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers.

On May 10, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Riyadh had invited Zarif, hinting at the possibility of a thaw between two bitter rivals whose struggle for influence is evident in conflicts throughout the Middle East.

"It is not possible for me to attend," the official IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying, explaining that the event to which he had been invited in the kingdom, an Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting, coincided with the nuclear talks.

Zarif said he had informed Saudi officials, IRNA reported. His visit would have been the first by a senior official of the Islamic Republic since President Hassan Rowhani, a relative moderate, took power in 2013.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia is a leading backer of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is a close ally of the kingdom's main rival, Shiite Muslim power Iran.

The next round of talks between six world powers and Iran on resolving a dispute over Tehran's nuclear program is be held in Vienna from June 16 to 20, the European Union has said.

Rowhani has adopted a conciliatory tone toward Tehran's neighbors since taking office last year, but while Zarif has visited other Gulf Arab states, he has not yet been to Saudi Arabia.