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Sun 17 Feb 2008 02:52 AM

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Sheikh Mohammed to visit Iran, Syria

Prime minister becomes most senior UAE official to visit Tehran since 1979 Islamic revolution.

UAE prime minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed Al-Maktoum visits Iran next week for talks on Tehran's disputed nuclear programme, an official said on Saturday.

Sheikh Mohammad, who is also the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE, will later travel to Syria for talks President Bashar Al-Assad on Lebanon's presidential crisis, the official who requested anonymity told newswire AFP.

The trip will start in the middle of next week, the official added without naming an exact day.

The UAE is Iran's largest trade partner, and booming Dubai serves as a hub for Iranian business, despite a longstanding dispute between the two countries over three strategic Gulf islands.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian head of state to visit the UAE in May 2007, and Sheikh Mohammad will be the most senior UAE official to visit Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Sheikh Mohammad, who met US President George W. Bush when he visited the UAE during a Middle East tour in January, will discuss with officials in Tehran the "Iranian nuclear file," the source said in a reference to Iran's standoff with the West over its nuclear programme.

The talks will also cover UAE-Iran relations, including the row over the islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa which were annexed by Iran's pro-Western Shah in 1971 and are claimed by Abu Dhabi.

Talks in Syria will focus on the situation in Lebanon, which has been without a president since November amid a deadlock between the Western-backed anti-Syrian ruling majority and the Syria- and Iran-backed opposition.

Sheikh Mohammad's discussions with Assad will also cover efforts to ensure a successful Arab summit in Damascus, slated for March 29-30, the official said.

Regional observers have suggested that failure to solve the Lebanon crisis could lead some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, to boycott the Damascus summit or downgrade their representation.

Lebanon's ruling majority, which is backed by most Gulf Arab states and the US, has blamed Syria for the Lebanese crisis. Damascus denies the charge.

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