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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:

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

PETER KENYON: 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.

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

KENYON: 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.

YASIN ALIREZA: 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: 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.

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: 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: 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.

KHALED DAKHIL: 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.

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: 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.

LEE HAMILTON: 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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