U.S., Saudi Officials End Talks About Iraq, Iran

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates finished talks in Saudi Arabia with leaders of that country about a regional approach in the Gulf to issues such as Iraq and Iran.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The U.S. secretary of state and defense secretary are in Saudi Arabia today. Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates were in the Gulf region to promote a regional approach to issues like Iraq and Iran.

NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz joins us now from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Hello.

GUY RAZ: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, this morning at a news conference with Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates standing next to the Saudi foreign minister, they commented - Rice and Gates - on a question about the Saudi's undermining the government in Iraq. Now, the government in Iraq is Shiite, Saudi Arabia's Sunni. Talk to us about that.

RAZ: That's right. Renee, over the weekend, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, essentially accused Saudi Arabia of undermining the Shiite-led government in Iraq. And the Saudi Arabia foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was asked about this and he responded by saying he was astounded at the accusation, essentially denying that the Saudis were doing anything other than to help the Iraqi government, you know.

But it should be said that not once during this entire news conference did the Saudi foreign minister refer specifically to either Iraq or the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. He kept calling them the other side when he was discussing Iraq.

Now, the Saudis and many of the other Gulf Arab leaders actually see the Iraqi government, you know, as nothing more than a client of Iran. And it's for obvious reasons because, of course, Iraq's government is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim. And, as you mentioned, the Gulf states are ruled by Sunni Muslim princes and monarchs, and many of them are concerned about what they see as Iran's growing influence in the region, particularly in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: And another issue of special concern to the Saudis and the Gulf is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. During the stop in Saudi Arabia, what was discussed about that issue?

RAZ: Well, this essentially is supposed to be the centerpiece of the discussions that Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates are holding with Gulf Arab leaders. Of course, earlier this month, the president announced that he would convene a regional conference on this issue, you know, in the hopes that it would jumpstart peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Now, the Saudi foreign minister said that his country probably won't attend the talks that are expected to happen around the fall, but that if substantive, in his words, if substantive issues are going to be dealt with, then the Saudis may consider actually going to a regional conference that would deal with that issue.

MONTAGNE: And what about regional security? That's a big issue there.

RAZ: That is. And there's been a lot of talk about this issue over the past few days because, of course, the United States is proposing a $20 billion arms deal for the Gulf Arab states. A lot of those weapons would be going to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and the United States are trying to downplay this, essentially saying, look, we've had long-standing ties, this is nothing new. But in actual fact, the secretary of defense has been talking about exploring what he describes as sort of further opportunities for new security cooperation between the U.S. and Gulf states, and it's clearly something that is aimed toward Iran and the perception of Iran's growing influence in the region.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR's Guy Raz in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where Secretaries Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates have just concluded talks with Saudi officials.

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