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Fearing Iran, Western Nations Look to Saudi Arabia

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Fearing Iran, Western Nations Look to Saudi Arabia

Fearing Iran, Western Nations Look to Saudi Arabia

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Our series on the spreading influence of Iran continues now with the view from another corner of the Persian Gulf.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has watched with growing alarm as its neighbor Iran grows closer to the new Shiite-led government in Iraq and as it provides support to armed factions elsewhere. Chief among those armed groups are Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

All that has led to much speculation that the Saudis would shed their preference for behind-the-scenes diplomacy and move to counter the rise of Iran.

But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Riyadh, Saudis say there are limits to what King Abdullah can realistically accomplish.

PETER KENYON: As Iranian commentators are fond of mentioning, the histories of most modern Gulf states are no more than the blink of an eye compared with Iran's rich past. That definitely would include Saudi Arabia, where the aging sons of the Kingdom's founder, Abullaziz bin Saud, are still in charge.

Saudis have long viewed Iran as one of the cleverest and most ambitious states in the region and, at the moment, the view from Riyadh is that Iran's influence seems to be growing while that of the United States declines.

That has raised expectations that King Abdullah will lead a move to Iran's expanding influence. In fact, analysts say, the king has his hands full with a domestic reform program that's upsetting the conservative religious establishment that the ruling family has long depended on for support.

Even so, the elderly monarch has gamely stepped into the diplomatic spotlight. In March, he startled some in the Bush administration when he called the U.S.-led presence in Iraq an illegal foreign occupation. In that same speech, he listed the disasters and near-disasters facing the Middle East - Iraq, Iran's nuclear ambitions, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories - and bluntly told Arab leaders to stop laying all the blame at the feet of Israel and Washington.

King ABDULLAH (Saudi Arabia): The real blame lies at our door - we, the leaders of the Arab world, with our constant differences, rather than moving towards unity.

KENYON: It was a brief, uncomfortable moment in an otherwise uneventful Arab summit, but it left many wondering what the Saudis might do next. Since then, the much-touted Mecca agreement that brought Hamas and Fatah factions of the Palestinian leadership together has collapsed, and Riyadh is said to be frustrated and angry over Tehran's involvement in both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Lebanese crisis.

But analyst and businessman Yasin Alireza voices a popular view here when he says the kingdom needs to keep Iran in check, but not at the cost of open confrontation.

Mr. YASIN ALIREZA (Businessman): I think both Saudi Arabia and Iran, they don't want tensions among themselves, but the Iranians are now acting more in defense because they are afraid of the major power which has entered the area next to them, which is the U.S. in Iraq. So most of their actions are really defensive.

KENYON: Others say the world can't afford to assume that all of Iran's moves, especially its alleged bid to become a nuclear power, are purely defensive, because the stakes are so high.

Alireza says the more immediate concern is how Iran would react to a strike on its nuclear facilities. He doesn't believe, as many in the West do, that Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states would be among Tehran's targets.

Mr. ALIREZA: In my opinion that will be madness because they'll be driving these Gulf countries to support the U.S. if they do that. What they will do is provoke trouble in Iraq against the American forces. They will have their own people and their supporters, the resistance forces and every type of troublemaker, to create a problem for the U.S. But to create a problem with the Gulf will be disastrous for them.

KENYON: In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, King Abdullah was dismissed by some in the West as the autocratic ruler of a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Less than six years later, Saudi Arabia is viewed as the de facto leader of the moderate Arab states, those the West is counting on to help lead the way toward peace in Iraq and Lebanon, perhaps even find a path out of the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli conflict, all crises where the West is at odds with Iran.

To officials and analysts here, however, those expectations are unrealistic in the extreme, not least because of the volatile security situation the king faces at home.

(Soundbite of traffic)

KENYON: Heavy security searches slow traffic to a crawl in some areas of Riyadh, part of an aggressive counterterrorism effort. At the same time, Saudi extremists keep popping up in a number of regional hotspots. U.S. and Iraqi officials recently said as many as 45 percent of the foreign fighters in Iraq were coming from Saudi Arabia.

Syria also announced it was holding a number of Saudis who tried to infiltrate Iraq, and Lebanese sources say Saudis are well-represented among the Islamist extremists fighting the Lebanese army at a refugee camp in the northern part of the country.

Perhaps understandably, when it comes to dealing with Iran people here find it easier to talk about why things have gone wrong than about how to make things right. In the Saudi view, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a critical mistake that allowed Tehran to pursue its ambitions.

Riyadh writer and academic Khaled Dakhil says what's astonishing to many people here is that the Bush administration invaded Iraq without having an answer to the question of who would step into the power vacuum left by the toppling of Saddam. The answer, he fears, is Tehran.

Mr. KHALED DAKHIL (Writer): Now, their presence in Lebanon, their big presence in Iraq - these are very big gains. It coincided when the Arab states were in the process of being weak, from within and through the American policies in the region.

KENYON: Dakhil doesn't see Saudi Arabia or any other Arab state taking over the role of counterweight to Iran anytime soon. He says King Abdullah understands the problem, but will most likely continue to use quiet diplomacy rather than confrontation.

Mr. DAKHIL: Well, I'm not sure that he has that many options in this. I think Saudi Arabia is just like the rest of the Arab states. They are weak at this point. They are uncertain. The king is trying to do something, but I'm afraid that it is really just trying to prevent the worst from happening here.

KENYON: The worst, in Saudi eyes, would be a U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran. Saudis say whatever moves King Abdullah makes in the next 16 months - the remainder of President Bush's term in office - will likely be designed to keep that from happening.

Saudi professor Wahid Hamza Hashem says there's one other thing the U.S. could do that would go a long way toward both containing Iran and making progress on the war on terror - don't lose Iraq.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Riyadh.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we turn to Iran's most unusual ally - Syria.

JOHN YDSTIE: And we have news this morning that an Iranian-American scholar detained since May in a Tehran prison, Haleh Esfandiari, was accused of conspiring against the Iranian government. Her colleague at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington, D.C., former Congressman Lee Hamilton, says Esfandiari's detention has been a long and trying ordeal.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): We want her to be permitted to return to the United States and we want to see her reunited with her family.

YDSTIE: Lee Hamilton speaking of his colleague, Haleh Esfandiari. Iranians officials have not said whether she will be allowed to leave the country.

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