China's desire for close Iran ties unchanged, Xi says ahead of Saudi prince's visit

FILE PHOTO - Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the "Message to Compatriots in Taiwan" at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China January 2, 2019. REUTERS/Mark Schiefelbein/Pool

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's desire to develop close ties with Iran will remain unchanged, regardless of the international situation, President Xi Jinping told the speaker of Iran's parliament, ahead of Thursday's visit to Beijing by Saudi Arabia's crown prince.

China has traditionally played little role in Middle East conflicts or diplomacy, despite relying on the region for oil, with Iran its fourth largest supplier last year, but has been trying to raise its profile, especially in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman visited Beijing in 2017, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives on Thursday for a two-day visit.

However, China has had to walk a fine line, as it also has close ties with Saudi Arabia's regional foe, Iran.

Meeting Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on Wednesday, Xi said the two countries had a long friendship and shared long-tested mutual trust, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement issued on Thursday.

"No matter how the international and regional situation changes, China's resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged," it paraphrased Xi as saying.

China and Iran should further deepen strategic mutual trust and continue to support each other on core interests and major concerns, Xi added.

China advocates cooperation among international and regional parties to swiftly put the Middle East on the road of stability and development, he said.

"We support Iran in playing a constructive role in maintaining regional peace and stability and are willing to closely communicate and coordinate on regional issues," Xi added.

In Beijing, Larijani has been accompanied by Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who met his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday.

Washington's major European allies opposed a decision last year by U.S. President Donald Trump to abandon the Iran nuclear deal that included China and Russia, and lifted international sanctions on Iran, in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)