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China and Iran rekindle ties during Xi Jinping's state visit

Iran and China have signed a series of agreements just days after Iran was freed from crippling international sanctions. China is eager to build its economic footprint across the Middle East.

One week after international sanctions were lifted against Iran, the Tehran government agreed to expand bilateral relations with China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday hailed the agreement during a state visit to the Iranian capital, calling it a "new season" for bilateral relations.

Xi is the first head of state to visit Iran since

sanctions were lifted on January 16,

after independent inspections showed that Iran had complied with the terms of an international agreement to limit its nuclear program.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who is

trying to redevelop the country's international ties

after years of semi-isolation, also hailed the agreement.

"We are happy that President Xi visited Iran after the lifting of sanctions ... Iran and China have agreed to increase trade to $600 billion in the next 10 years," Rouhani said at a news conference with Xi, which was broadcast live on state television.

"Iran and China have agreed on forming strategic relations (as) reflected in a 25-year comprehensive document," he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, as Iranian military guards watch

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, after Xi's arrival in Tehran.

The two sides signed 17 accords on Saturday, which included plans to revive the ancient Silk Road trade route and cooperation on a peaceful nuclear energy program.

Beijing is Tehran's top customer for oil exports, and trade between the two countries totaled $52 billion in 2014. But that figure declined in 2015 due to the falling price of oil.

The Iranian president said the two sides also agreed to work together to resolve the issue of "terrorism and extremism in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen," but the details of such cooperation are unclear.

Aiming for influence

Xi's visit to Iran is the first by a Chinese president in 14 years.

He is also visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia during his Middle East tour,

which began on January 19. It's a region in which China is eager to strengthen its economic presence.

To that end,

Xi offered Cairo $55 billion worth of loans and investments.

The Saudi government, along with other Sunni Arab allies, severed diplomatic ties with Iran earlier this month after protesters broke in to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The protesters were angry that Saudi Arabia had executed a prominent Shiite cleric.

In addition to his meeting with President Rouhani on Saturday, Xi is to meet later in the day with Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

bik/rc (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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