Iran welcomes Omani sultan

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran welcomed the leader of neighboring Oman Sunday in a visit that has raised hopes that Omani mediation could help ease tensions between Iran and Western powers over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Omani Sultan Qaboos was scheduled to focus on bilateral and international affairs during his three-day visit. In the past, Oman has played a mediating role in helping to help release Iranian and American nationals from both countries' prisons. In the run-up to the current visit, Iranian newspapers raised speculation that Oman could repeat such mediation in the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, however, denied any knowledge of such an agenda for the visit while speaking to reporters after the sultan's arrival.

"We are not aware if the sultan of Oman is conveying a message," Zarif said. "We are ready to discuss various issues he might be interested in raising."

Pro-reform Iranian daily newspaper Bahar said the sultan might discuss easing financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe on Iran in return for the country decreasing uranium enrichment activity. Iran has had no access to foreign revenue because of an oil-and-banking embargo imposed on the country because of its nuclear program.

Western governments suspect Iran's nuclear activities have military dimensions, while Iran says it is pursuing only peaceful aims such as power generation and cancer treatment.

In May, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Oman and other Arab states in the Persian Gulf region to push for the creation of an integrated defense network against the alleged threat posed by Iran.

Oman has had good relations with Europe and the U.S. while enjoying historic ties with Iran. The visit marked the first by a foreign leader to Iran since centrist Iranian President Hasan Rouhani took office about three weeks ago.

During a greeting ceremony, Rouhani urged both sides to apply efforts to "deepen and boost bilateral cooperation more than before."

The Omani sultan responded that his country is ready to help create trade routes through Iran between Oman and Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Annual Iran-Oman trade stands at $250 million.

Both countries also are partners in controlling the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of international oil supply passes.

Qaboos last visited Iran in 2009, three decades after his only other trip in the mid-1970s when Iranian forces helped him dismantle Soviet-backed Marxist guerrillas who sought independence in the southern Omani province of Dhofar.