* Kuwait seen as potential bridge between Iran, S.Arabia
* Tehran's nuclear engagement welcomed by neighbours
* But rivalry with Sunni power Riyadh still strong
DUBAI, June 1 Kuwait's emir began a visit to
Iran on Sunday, the first by a ruler of the U.S.-allied Gulf
Arab state since the 1979 Islamic revolution, underscoring
improving ties between Tehran and its Arab neighbours.
Regional television stations showed Iranian President Hassan
Rouhani escorting Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah to review an
Iranian honour guard upon the emir's arrival in Tehran.
Rouhani, elected last year, has been trying to lead Shi'ite
Muslim Iran out of years of isolation and his decision to engage
with world powers in talks about Tehran's nuclear programme has
been welcomed by some in the Sunni Muslim states on the other
side of the Gulf.
Kuwait, home to a sizeable Shi'ite Muslim minority, is seen
by some as a potential bridge between Iran and the Gulf Arab
states, including the main power Saudi Arabia, with which
relations remain strained, not least because of opposing stances
over Syria's civil war.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Sunday he could
not take up an invitation to visit Saudi Arabia to attend a
conference to attend a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic
Cooperation later this month because the proposed dates clashed
with planned nuclear negotiations with world powers.
Sheikh Sabah, a former Kuwaiti foreign minister, is
described by analysts as one of the region's most active
diplomats, often acting as a mediator.
The emir's visit comes at "a critical time and amid
complicated changes in the region," said Ali Anayati, Iran's
ambassador to Kuwait, Kuwaiti news agency KUNA reported. He said
the visit would start a "new chapter of bilateral cooperation".
Both leaders want to "create a safe and stable regional
system based on non-interference in other countries' internal
affairs," he said.
The emir heads a delegation which includes the foreign
minister and oil minister, Iranian news agency IRNA said.
The visit follows Foreign Minister Zarif's tour of the
Middle East in December after Tehran signed an interim nuclear
deal with world powers. Kuwait said it hoped the deal would help
regional stability and security.
Saudi Arabia, which backs rebels fighting Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran, sees the Shi'ite power as
one of its biggest threats.
Gulf Arab states, like Western powers, suspect Iran has been
using its nuclear power programme as a front to develop weapons
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also accused Iran of stirring
up their Shi'ite communities to revolt. Iran says its nuclear
programme is peaceful and denies interference in those
(Reporting by Sylvia Westall and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Robin