NEW YORK (Reuters) - The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia deserves to be better, though differences between the two oil-producing Middle Eastern states appear to be narrowing, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday.
Shi‘ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are enmeshed in a struggle for influence across the Middle East and have supported opposing sides in wars and political disputes in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia ... deserves to be warmer,” Rouhani told a group of senior editors in New York ahead of the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly. “Saudi Arabia’s positions are getting closer and closer to us.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Rouhani added that if the two nations’ differences are truly narrowing, “relations with Saudi Arabia will grow closer.”
Rouhani reacted cautiously to the U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria. He neither condemned nor endorsed the military action by the United States and Arab allies.
“The bombardment must have a certain framework that is needed to take place in a third country.” He said that without a U.N. mandate or a request from the government of the affected country, military interventions “don’t have any legal standing.”
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja‘afari told Reuters on Tuesday that he was personally informed by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power of imminent U.S. and Arab airstrikes against Islamic State targets on Syrian territory hours ahead of time.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a close ally of Iran, which has provided military support to his government during its civil war, now in its fourth year.
Rouhani said he had no plans to meet U.S. President Barack Obama while in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
He described this week as an important one for his country’s talks with world powers meant to forge a long-term accord by Nov. 24 that would end sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
Senior foreign ministry officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, the United States, Russia and Iran are meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly. Officials close to the talks say a deal is unlikely in coming days given deep disagreement on issues such as the future scope of Iran’s future enrichment program.
“The talks occurring will clear many things, whether we will be able to reach a final agreement or not. I believe both sides have reached the conclusion that the continuation of the current condition doesn’t benefit anyone.... So why not make strides to reach this agreement?” Rouhani said.
He appeared to suggest relations with the United States had improved despite their differences, and even if no final agreement is reached, the negotiating process, inconceivable two years ago, had altered relations.
“It doesn’t mean we will go back to the way things were prior,” he said.
Iran has said it would like the United States and its Western allies to show flexibility in the talks. Several Iranian officials told Reuters that Iran is ready to work with Western powers to stop Islamic State, but would like concessions on Tehran’s uranium enrichment program in exchange.
The White House on Monday said it refused to link the nuclear talks with the fight against Islamic State.
Reporting by Stephen Adler, writing by Louis Charbonneau, editing by Howard Goller