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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been making the rounds this week in Europe and the Middle East. Both made sure to meet with one ally the United States relies on for energy and also advice.

INSKEEP: That country is Saudi Arabia, and it's one of the countries that came up last weekend when Vice President Cheney spoke with Fox News. He said Saudi Arabia is one of several countries the U.S. listens to when deciding what to think of the Saudi's neighbor - Iran.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: And Iran's a problem in a much larger sense. They have begun to conduct themselves in ways that have created a great deal of tension throughout the region. If you go and talk with the Gulf States or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried, partly because of the conduct of Mr. Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, who appears to be a radical. A man who believes on apocalyptic vision of the future and who thinks it's imminent.

INSKEEP: The Vice President's statement casts some light on who he talks to. We're joined now by Vali Nasr. He teaches U.S. military officers, and is the author of the book called "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future." Welcome to the program.

Mr. VALI NASR (Author): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Lets' talk about some of the countries that the Vice President mentioned there. He said if you talk to the Saudis, if you talk to Jordan, if you talk to the Gulf States - what do those countries have in common?

Mr. NASR: Well, they're all Arab countries that, for a long time, have been in alliance with the United States in the region. They were part of the balance of power that kept Iran in check during the years that it was fighting against Iraq. And these countries are not happy with becoming relatively weaker compared to a relatively stronger Iran.

INSKEEP: So just to specify two quick questions here, do they then have legitimate reasons to be worried about Iran and what Iran is doing?

Mr. NASR: It is a reality that in the Persian Gulf there is no military bulwark to contain Iran. There is no country in the region within Iran's immediate neighborhood that is able to stand up to Iran. Iran is a country of 70 million people, which it dwarfs - in terms of size and in terms of population - the countries around it.

So the smaller countries in the region are looking for ways to balance Iran's power. Once upon a time, they looked to Saddam in Iraq to do so. Now with the Iraqi military gone, they're looking to the United States.

INSKEEP: So there may be some legitimate reasons for those countries to be concerned. Are there not so legitimate reasons for those countries to be worried about Iran and focusing the U.S. attention on Iran?

Mr. NASR: Yes. We're going from a period in history where Iran and Saudi Arabia were rivals with relatively equal power and Iran was contained, to a period where Saudi Arabia looks at Iran becoming militarily, politically, culturally far more influential.

Its influence now is running from Afghanistan all the way into southern Iraq. In many ways, Saudi Arabia is reacting to that shift in power by looking to the United States to balance out Iran.

INSKEEP: If we set aside Israel - one of the countries that Vice President Cheney named - is it significant that the other countries you mentioned as being worried about Iran are governed by Sunni Muslims? And Iran is a Shia-majority country governed by Shias?

Mr. NASR: It didn't used to be the case, but it has become the case because of Iraq, because Iraq has opened this sectarian divide in the region. And, in fact, the Arab governments were the very first ones to point to this sectarian divide. It was Jordan who pointed to the idea of a Shia crescent.

And when the Lebanon war happened last summer, many Arab governments were very quick to condemn Hezbollah as an Iranian Shia proxy. So whether we like it or not, the idea of a Shia-Sunni divide - the Shiites being a source of Iranian power - is very much in the minds of the capitals in the region.

INSKEEP: When Vice President Cheney says you talk to the Saudis, you talk to the Jordanians, you talk to the Gulf States, it's reasonable to assume that he actually has, and they've actually talked to him.

Mr. NASR: Well, when the Vice President Cheney went to Saudi Arabia just a short while ago to meet with the king there, the king point blank told him that he did not want the United States to talk to Iran. And this was in advance -maybe by a week - of the release of the Iraq Study Group, which was going to suggest exactly that.

Now the U.S. has actually adopted a much tougher confrontational posture vis-à-vis Iran. And that seemed to be the direction that Saudi Arabia would have wanted the United States to move in.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr, thanks very much.

Mr. NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr is the author of "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future."

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