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Saudi Arabia Fears Being Drawn Into U.S.-Iran Conflict


President Trump's speech today appeared intended to avert an all-out conflict with Iran, and that might provide the opportunity for the Mideast's two big regional rivals to cool things off. We're talking about Iran and Saudi Arabia. There had been signs the two countries were trying to ease tensions, and that was before the U.S. killed a top Iranian commander and Iran fired missiles at U.S. troops. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The U.S. and Saudi Arabia relationship has been particularly close since President Trump took office. That could turn out to be a double-edged sword for Saudi Arabia after the U.S. killing of senior Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.

HENRY ROME: The Saudis are in a very tough spot almost entirely of the Americans' making.

NORTHAM: Henry Rome is an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy. He says it's unlikely that Iran would target Saudi Arabia directly in the case of a tit-for-tat retaliation with the U.S., but there could be blowback for the kingdom in any case.

ROME: I think at this point, Saudi Arabia, the most likely way it gets drawn in is if Iran decides to attack U.S. facilities in Saudi.

NORTHAM: In September, Saudi Arabia's vulnerabilities were laid bare after an attack on Saudi Aramco by cruise missiles and drones. It was blamed on Iran. Rome says Saudi Arabia was surprised there was no response to the attack from the Trump administration.

ROME: It became very clear to the leadership in Riyadh that Washington does not have its back from a military point of view and that they need to urgently try another avenue.

NORTHAM: That avenue was diplomacy. Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East specialist at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company, says after the Aramco attack, Saudi Arabia focused on trying to de-escalate tension in the Persian Gulf region.

EMILY HAWTHORNE: We have seen the Saudis back away from what was once a pretty sharply confrontational stance against Iran. And we've seen them move more toward - beginning to probe the idea of seeking a dialogue with Iran.

NORTHAM: Hawthorne says efforts towards a Saudi-Iranian detente were in the very early stages and mediated by other countries such as Pakistan and Iraq. Trita Parsi, an executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, says there were tangible signs that Saudi Arabia was serious about cooling tensions with Iranian proxies such as the Houthis.

TRITA PARSI: We saw an 80% reduction in Saudi airstrikes on Yemen. We saw talks between the Houthis and the Saudis, which led to an exchange of more than a hundred prisoners of war. And now we apparently also saw that there were messages being sent between the Saudis and Iran.

NORTHAM: In fact, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi told Parliament that he was mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He said Soleimani was bringing a message for the Saudis on the day he was killed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threw cold water on the idea that Soleimani was on a diplomatic mission.


MIKE POMPEO: Is there any history that would indicate that it was remotely possible that this kind gentleman, this diplomat of great order, Qassem Soleimani, had traveled to Baghdad for the idea of conducting a peace mission? We know that wasn't true.

NORTHAM: After President Trump's address today, where he seemed to indicate the immediate crisis with Iran was over, Rome, Hawthorne and Parsi said if tensions de-escalate, there's still a chance that attempts for a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia can resume.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.