News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.S. Declines To Play Referee In Saudi Arabia, Iran Dispute


The U.S. says it does not want to referee the current dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two countries have severed diplomatic relations. The tensions threaten to undermine U.S. goals throughout the region, including in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how the U.S. is walking a fine line.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Before he left the Obama administration last year, Philip Gordon was a White House adviser on the gulf, so he spent a lot of time trying to ease Saudi concerns about nuclear negotiations with Iran. The U.S. offered the Saudis massive arms deals, and it worked hard to get the Saudis and the Iranians to sit at the same table for peace talks on Syria. Now, Gordon says, the U.S. is back to the drawing board after the Saudis executed a Shiite cleric and Iranians torched the Saudi Embassy.

PHILIP GORDON: Sure, there's frustration in Washington at this step, which Saudi Arabia took knowing that it would inflame tensions even more and stand in the way of what the U.S. is trying to achieve.

KELEMEN: Gordon, who's now at the Council on Foreign Relations, doesn't expect the nuclear deal with Iran to be derailed. But he says the Saudis are clearly sending Washington a message that they don't think the U.S. is being tough enough with Iran on other issues. He says Riyadh will be disappointed if it's trying to force a change in the U.S. approach.

GORDON: Nobody knows really what it would take to genuinely reassure the Saudis and the others. The truth is Saudi Arabia's under a lot of pressure right now from very low oil prices, from its conflict with Iran, from a very costly war in Yemen that's not going very well, from the burdens of intervening in Syria and at a time when their questions about Saudi Arabia's own domestic transition.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State John Kerry has been working the phones, though his spokesman, John Kirby, says leaders in the region have to work through their own disputes.


JOHN KIRBY: While we certainly want to foster that engagement, real long-term sustainable answers aren't going to be legislated from Washington, D.C.

KELEMEN: Kirby adds the U.S. doesn't want to be a referee. Saudi watcher Rachel Bronson understands why given the recent actions by the Saudis.

RACHEL BRONSON: They are playing a very provocative game, and the Iranians are playing it right there with them.

KELEMEN: While the U.S. might not be able to resolve their deep animosities, it should at least work on the margins, says Bronson, who publishes the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

BRONSON: Washington is trying to tamp down that hatred by dealing with the periphery, right? They're trying to figure out if they can get this Iran deal through, maybe they can get Iran and Saudi Arabia to the table on Syria. If they can get a Syria deal through, maybe that'll help the issues in Yemen.

KELEMEN: The U.N. special envoys on Yemen and Syria are both scrambling now to keep their peace efforts on track. The Saudi ambassador to the U.N., Abdallah al-Mouallimi, says his country will stay at the table. But adds it's up to Iran to stop meddling.


ABDALLAH AL-MOUALLIMI: We are not natural born enemies with Iran. It is only the behavior of the Iranian government that continues to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, particularly other Arab countries.

KELEMEN: Former White House adviser Philip Gordon says the Saudis are obsessed with Iran and fearful of it. He says the break in relations is deeply troubling.

GORDON: They make what was very hard already on the diplomatic front now nearly impossible, at least for the time being.

KELEMEN: The State Department hopes Syria talks will go ahead as planned later this month. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.