RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has invited Iran's foreign minister to visit, Riyadh's counterpart said on Tuesday, hinting at a cautious thaw between the Gulf's two biggest, most bitter rivals since Tehran reached an interim nuclear deal with world powers.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has visited most of Saudi Arabia's Gulf Arab allies including Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates since the nuclear pact, which eased some Gulf Arab worries, but has not been to Riyadh.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference that Zarif had been given an invitation to the kingdom but had not yet responded. He did not say when Riyadh issued the invitation.
"...This intention to visit has not become a fact..., but any time he sees fit to come, we are willing to receive (Zarif)," Prince Saud said in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Relations between Iran and most of its Gulf Arab neighbors have been improving since the biggest Shi'ite Muslim power agreed preliminary limits on its nuclear activity last year, but ties with Sunni Muslim arch-rival Saudi Arabia remained chilly.
Gulf Arab states, like Western powers and Israel, fear Iran has been using its declared civilian nuclear energy program as a front to covertly develop an atomic bomb capability.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also accused Iran of trying to meddle in their internal affairs by stirring up their Shi'ite communities to revolt. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and denies interference in these countries' affairs.
But since taking office in August, moderate President Hassan Rouhani has overseen a conciliatory shift in Iran's hitherto confrontational foreign relations, culminating in the November 24 interim nuclear deal.
Ties with Saudi Arabia, however, are complicated by the fact that the two back opposing parties in Syria's civil war. Riyadh is a leading supporter of rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is a close ally of Tehran.
"We'll negotiate with them (Iran), we'll talk with them," Prince Saud said. "And our hope is that Iran becomes part of the effort to make the region as safe and as prosperous as possible and not become part of the problem."
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich)