DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — 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 Iran and the West.
A tangible sign of the growing bonds between the neighbors came late Wednesday with the signing of an initial deal to build an underwater pipeline that would ship Iranian natural gas to Oman.
The moderate-leaning Rouhani, 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. 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.
Iran and Oman have been strengthening economic ties, including a recent deal to boost the number of airline flights between the two countries. Iran agreed to a long-term natural gas supply agreement with Oman last year.
Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency quoted Iranian Oil Minister Bijam Namdar Zanganeh saying the 350-kilometer (217-mile) gas pipeline covered under the interim deal would link the southern Iranian gas field of Roudan to Oman. A joint Iranian-Omani company would complete the estimated $1 billion project and sell the gas in Oman and other countries.
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