Rouhani heads to Turkey for key Islamic summit

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will attend a summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul this week

Tehran (AFP) – Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will head to Istanbul Wednesday for a summit of Islamic countries which Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkey’s burgeoning ally, is also attending.

Rouhani and Salman, whose countries’ ties plummeted in January when Riyadh cut diplomatic relations, are to take part in an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit on Thursday and Friday.

The 80-year-old Sunni king arrived Monday in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeting him at the airport in a rare break of protocol.

Saudi Arabia cut its diplomatic relations with Iran after a rampaging mob set fire to its missions in Tehran and Mashhad, Iran’s second city, in protest at the execution by Riyadh of a prominent Shiite cleric.

The regional rivals have since accused each other of funding terrorism and destabilising the Middle East.

Rouhani will make a speech at the Istanbul summit and hold bilateral meetings with some of the dozens of leaders attending, according to Parviz Esmaeili, a spokesman in the presidency’s office.

He will also focus on bilateral economic issues with Turkey, Telecom Minister Mahmoud Vaezi said, according to state television service IRIB.

Iran has moved to improve its relations with Turkey in recent months.

Tehran and Ankara announced earlier this year plans to increase annual trade to $30 billion, IRIB said. Trade for 2014 stood at $13.71 billion but dropped to $9.76 billion in 2015.

However the red carpet treatment for Salman symbolised an emerging Riyadh-Ankara alliance against Shiite Iran’s rising influence following Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers that lifted sanctions. 

Iran is also the main regional ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose stepping down is necessary, according to Salman and Erdogan, to end the five-year Syrian war.

Iran and Saudi Arabia also remain at odds over a deadly stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage in the kingdom last year which killed more than 2,000 worshippers including 464 Iranians.

An Iranian delegation on Tuesday went to Saudi Arabia to discuss this year’s hajj ceremonies in Mecca and nearby cities. 

It will be the first meeting between officials of the two rival powers since protesters ransacked the Saudi missions in January after the execution of Shiite cleric and activist Nimr al-Nimr.