Saudi king calls on Iran to avoid escalation

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RIYADH, Nov 8 (Reuters) Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has urged Iran to avoid escalation in its standoff with the West over its nuclear programme and called for a solution that would allow Tehran to use atomic energy for peaceful purposes.

King Abdullah's remarks, published today, come a week after Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said Iran's Gulf neighbours were willing to set up a body to provide it with enriched uranium.

''The world fears that Iran's nuclear programme will lead to developing nuclear weapons. Iran has announced its nuclear programme is intended for peaceful use,'' the king said in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, carried by the official Saudi news agency SPA.

''If this is the case, then we don't see any justification for escalation, confrontation and challenge, which only makes issues more complicated.'' Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries share US concerns that Iran's nuclear energy programme is a cover for developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists its plans are peaceful.

Gulf states have announced plans to begin their own nuclear energy programme, raising concern over an arms race in the world's top oil exporting region.

Elaborating on the proposal announced by Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, King Abdullah said the offer envisaged ''setting up a centre according to safety and environmental standards under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision.'' Iran's deputy chief nuclear negotiator said last Saturday that Iran welcomed proposals for joint enrichment projects with other countries, ''but if the condition is stopping enrichment in Iran, it will not be acceptable''.

Many countries in the region say they are looking to nuclear energy to help them meet growing electricity demand.

Gulf Arab countries, which include the world's major oil and gas exporters such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, fear environmental damage if hostilities break out between Iran and the United States.

The United States also has a large military presence in the Gulf region, exposing Gulf Arabs to possible Iranian retaliation.

Reuters MS GC1936

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