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Iran: President Khatami Begins Mideast Tour In Syria

Prague, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's President Mohammad Khatami today begins a Mideast tour which can be viewed as another step in efforts to enhance his country's international profile.

He visits Syria first, then continues at the weekend to Saudi Arabia and ends the tour in the small Gulf state of Qatar. The regional trip complements Khatami's attempts over more than a year to forge broader international links through a trip to European Union member Italy and through his fostering limited contacts with the United States.

RFE/RL regional expert Bill Samii sees this trip as one with considerable meaning for Teheran:

"For the Iranians, ties with the West, in my opinion, are economically significant. [But] ties with regional countries, with Muslim states, are more than economically significant. They [The Iranians] fulfill their self-perceived role as leaders of the Islamic community and of the region". Khatami's itinerary is in itself paradoxical in that it takes in two major Mideast states that are at different ends of the political spectrum: Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The hard-line Syria of President Hafez Assad is accused, like Iran itself, of having long-standing contacts to international terrorism, while Saudi Arabia is a pro-Western bastion with close ties to the United States.

Although Syria is Khatami's initial stop, it would seem at first glance to have little new to offer Iran. Damascus was the only Arab capital which backed Tehran in the long Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s, and Iranians have not forgotten that support. But their political relations are steady, and economic ties are not significant and not expected to grow much as a result of the present visit.

However, there are other issues which Khatami can tackle. For instance, Damascus can help Iran reach out further toward Egypt and warm ties that were frozen when Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel. Any Iranian drive to bolster its standing and role in the Mideast region must eventually include rapprochement with Egypt.

Khatami and Assad could also discuss the situation with Turkey, which recently accused Teheran of supporting Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas fighting Ankara's rule in southeast Turkey. Syria expelled the PKK last year.

It's also expected that the Iranian leader will be meeting in Damascus with leaders of the Hizbollah Islamist guerrilla movement and radical opposition Palestinians. Iran is Hizbollah's primary backer, but Syria, with its influence over Lebanon, has long seen Hizbollah as a useful tool against Israel.

The Israelis, who vote in general elections next week (May 17), may therefore have some concern about Khatami's presence in Syria. But another regional expert, Shahram Chubin, director of research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, sees few problems:

"No, I don't think that Iran is concerting to start a new front against Israel. If that were the case it would not be advertising the case and would not be doing it through Khatami".

Nevertheless, Chubin sees Khatami's trip as a whole as n-o-t pro-Western in orientation. Looking ahead to the coming Saudi and Qatari legs of the trip he says:

"Even the normalization with the Gulf states to some extent can be seen as an opposition to the West, because it is intended to reduce the need for the United States presence in the region. That is not necessarily the way the Gulf Arabs would see it. They would see it as a healthy sign of normalization, but by no means a substitute for the American presence".

Khatami called last week for a Gulf security pact that would diminish the West's military presence in the region. He was speaking during a visit to Teheran by Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz. The Saudis will not go along with the Iranians on regional security, and there are limits to any general convergence between radical Muslim Shi'ite Iran and conservative Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia.

Still, Khatami's visit to Riyadh will be the highest-level visit by an Iranian to that country since the Islamic Revolution. It is another sign of lessening tension between the two Gulf powers in the last year-and-a-half.