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Saudi Arabia Sought Dialogue With Iran. Then The U.S.-Iranian Conflict Escalated

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) attends a ceremony with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in November. The Saudi crown prince was in the UAE for talks that were expected to focus on the war in Yemen and tensions with Iran.
Mohamed Al Hammadi
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) attends a ceremony with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in November. The Saudi crown prince was in the UAE for talks that were expected to focus on the war in Yemen and tensions with Iran.

The U.S. killing of senior Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani left many of America's allies in the Middle East confused and nervous. That includes Saudi Arabia, the top regional rival of Iran.

The Saudi-U.S. relationship has become particularly close since President Trump took office. It could prove to be a double-edged sword for the kingdom, analysts say, as Iran contemplates its next moves. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long battled for regional dominance, and the U.S. has supported the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi forces.

Trump made a speech Wednesday that seemed intended to avert a war with Iran. There had been signs Saudi Arabia and Iran were already trying to ease tensions. But that was before the U.S. killed Soleimani and Iran fired missiles at bases housing U.S. troops in retaliation.


"The Saudis are in a very tough spot, almost entirely of the Americans' making," says Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy.

Following the assassination of Soleimani, the Saudi kingdom dispatched its deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, to meet with Trump on Monday. The White House did not announce the meeting — word of it only became public when Khalid tweeted about it. He said he discussed "bilateral cooperation, including efforts to confront regional and international challenges."

Rome does not think Iran is likely to attack Saudi Arabia directly — but said Iran might try to target U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia.

"Where the Saudi concern lies is if this [Iranian and U.S. reciprocal retaliation] escalates very significantly, that Iran would start to look at countries that are allied with the U.S. or provide bases or other assistance to the U.S. as potential targets," says Rome.

He points to a recent incident that caused alarm. In September, a main installation and an oil field at the giant state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, were hit by a series of explosions. Saudi Arabia's military said the attack from cruise missiles and drones was "unquestionably" sponsored by Iran. The hit temporarily disabled part of the country's oil industry, laying bare vulnerabilities in its defenses.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Saudi Arabia and declared the assault an "act of war" by Iran.

Rome says the kingdom was surprised there was no military response from the Trump administration after the oil attack.

"I think 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," he says.

That avenue was diplomacy. After the attack on Saudi oil, the kingdom focused on trying to de-escalate tension in the Persian Gulf region, according to Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East specialist at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company.

"We have seen the Saudis back away from what was once a pretty sharply confrontational stance against Iran," Hawthorne says. "We've seen them move more toward beginning to probe the idea of seeking a dialogue with Iran."

The Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately provide comment to NPR on possible dialogue with Iran.

Hawthorne says Riyadh "craves" stability, not just for the kingdom's physical security, but also because it will help court foreign investment — a critical component of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to wean Saudi Arabia off its oil dependency.

Hawthorne says Saudi Arabia is following the example of its Gulf neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, which will host Expo 2020, a world's fair, next fall and wants to make sure it goes off without a hitch. She says the UAE has started a dialogue with Iranian officials. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have national safety as a priority, she says.

"The Arab Gulf states are closest allies of the United States, but they can't control exactly how the U.S. is conducting its policy against Iran," she says.

She says Saudi Arabia's efforts toward a Saudi-Iranian detente are in a very early stage and being mediated by other countries, such as Pakistan and Iraq.

In fact, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi told parliament last Sunday that he was mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He said Soleimani had been bringing a message from Iran for the Saudis on the day he was killed in Baghdad.

Pompeo threw cold water on any notion that Soleimani was on a diplomatic mission. "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?" he saidon Tuesday. "We know that wasn't true."

The Trump administration has said it conducted the drone strike against Soleimani to prevent planned attacks against Americans.

Trita Parsi, an executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, says there have been tangible signs that Saudi Arabia was serious about cooling tensions with Iranian proxies, such as the Yemeni rebels known as the Houthis.

"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 100 prisoners of war," he says. "And now we apparently also saw that there were messages being sent between ... the Saudis and Iran."

In his televised speech Wednesday, Trump said that Iran's attacks earlier in the day in Iraq did not harm any Americans and that the country appears "to be standing down."

If tensions do de-escalate, the analysts agree, there's still a chance that attempts for a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia can resume.

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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.