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BEIRUT — Iran's ambassador in Lebanon said he was confident the Islamic Republic would soon improve ties with longtime regional rival Saudi Arabia.

Speaking at a Beirut conference to mark the 35th anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution, Ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi acknowledged that Iran's calls for better ties had yet to receive "echoes" from Riyadh, but "a positive response should not be long in coming, already there are changes," Lebanon's L'Orient le Jour reported.

Roknabadi said a slated visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Riyadh could accelerate the warming of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The two countries have had frosty relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution and are bitterly divided over the fate of Syria, with Tehran supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Riyadh backing certain rebel forces.

Roknabadi said Iran did not seek to "impose anything either in Lebanon or Syria." But, he added, if peace is to be achieved, Saudi Arabia "has to stop arming the oppostion ... especially" the Salafists and "stop sending fighters" to Syria.

Asked if Iran would ever drop its support for President Assad or Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, the diplomat said "it is the United States that has a habit of dropping its allies, not the Islamic Republic. Where has it done this in 35 years?"

If Iran firmly backs Assad he said, it was because he was elected and "a great part of his people continues to back him ... Imagine Syria without ... Assad. In the present context it would be a catastrophe."

A day before Iranian deputy-foreign minister Amir Abdollahiansaid that Saudi Arabia had been slow to respond to Iran's overtures, but that Tehran maintained a "positive view" of ties with the kingdom. The conservative Fars news agency reported Abdollahian as telling the broadcaster al-Mayadeen that Iran also had good relations with the Hamas administration in Gaza, but that Hamas must "reconsider" its hostile position to the Assad regime in Syria.

-Ahmad Shayegan

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Fight Over Tourist Visa Ban For Russians Is Taking Everyone For A Ride

High on the agenda of the Prague summit of Europe’s foreign ministers this week was a proposal to ban tourist visas for Russians, as punishment for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But it is ultimately a way to change the subject, and recalls Zelensky’s iconic remark after the war began.

Passengers arrive at Sheremetyevo International Airport, Russia

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It’s not a new question. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had called for a ban on tourist visa for Russian soon after the war began, and this week it became the center of the Prague summit of European Union foreign ministers.

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Some European Union nations voiced their support soon after it was mentioned by Zelensky, including former Soviet republics and current Russia neighbors, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They were followed by Finland and the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Poland. Hungary, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus. Germany and France are looking for a compromise that would allow for visas for students, workers of culture and science, as well as people who need entry for humanitarian reason. Perhaps most importantly, however, the U.S. took an unambiguous position against the restrictions.

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