* Omani first foreign leader in Iran with Rouhani in office
* Oman acts as go-between in fraught Iranian-US relationship
By Yeganeh Torbati
DUBAI, Aug 25 Oman's Sultan Qaboos on Sunday
began the first visit to Iran by a foreign leader since moderate
President Hassan Rouhani took office and Iranian media said his
trip might be an effort to mediate between Tehran and
Oman, a Gulf Arab state that maintains unusually friendly
ties with both the United States and Iran, has previously been
an important go-between for the two countries that severed
diplomatic relations in 1980 and are in a protracted stand-off
over the disputed Iranian nuclear programme.
The West suspects the Islamic Republic is working to develop
a nuclear arms capability, an accusation Iran denies, and has
brought about increasingly strict international sanctions
President Barack Obama's administration has said Washington
is open to direct talks with Iran to resolve the nuclear and
other disputes, and Iranian officials have not ruled them out.
The landslide election of Rouhani, who took office on Aug.
3, has raised hopes of a negotiated settlement to the nuclear
dispute and an end to sanctions that have halved Iran's oil
exports since 2011 and put immense pressure on the economy.
"It can be guessed that the Sultan of Oman's trip to Iran
can mean that afterward this country, instead of playing the
role of mediator in relation to Iran and America, wants to play
the role of host for these two countries with regard to
negotiations," Qassem Mohebali, an Iranian analyst on the Middle
East, wrote in the reformist Bahar newspaper on Sunday.
Oman helped broker the release of three American hikers
detained in Iran in 2011 and an Iranian scientist held in
California on charges of violating U.S. sanctions this year.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sought to play
down reports that Qaboos was visiting Iran with a message from
the White House.
"We are not aware that the Sultan of Oman will be carrying a
particular message for our country," Zarif was quoted as saying
on Sunday by ISNA news agency. Rather, bilateral relations and
regional issues would be on the agenda, he said.
Mehran Kamrava, director of the Center for International and
Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, said Qaboos'
visit indicated Iran was coming out of the "isolationist mode"
it had adopted under Rouhani's predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,
who was known for bellicose rhetoric on the international stage.
"Oman is one of the few Arab countries with which Iran has
had consistent and regular good relations," Kamrava said.
"Whether the Sultan of Oman is bearing a message or not is
something we won't know until somewhat later, but certainly
countries like Oman could play a very important intermediary
role between Iran and the United States."
During his three-day visit, Qaboos will meet Rouhani,
clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and powerful
Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, local media said. Iranian and
Omani officials will also discuss cooperation on energy issues.
(Additional reporting by Fatma Al-Arimi in Muscat; Editing by