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Saudi Crown Prince Has Made Aggressive Foreign Policy Moves

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The other day, we caught a flight to Riyadh. The flight attendants on the Saudi Arabian airline distributed moist towelettes in packages that said 1945. They commemorate the year a Saudi king first met an American President, Franklin Roosevelt. This is all relevant today as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets President Trump in Washington. The two nations remain vital allies, so it affects the United States that the crown prince has made aggressive foreign policy moves, including the war in Yemen, which we are exploring this week. In Riyadh, we visited Prince Turki al-Faisal, once the head of Saudi intelligence. He argues that Saudis need to act now, though they are feeling more secure with President Trump than they had been with President Obama.

TURKI AL-FAISAL: I think President Trump has expressed some issues that have been, from my view, very positive - his recognition that Iran needs to be dealt with because of its interference in the affairs of neighboring countries. And some cases, he's not been very positive. On the issue of Jerusalem, for example, he was very pre-emptive, very much, I think, more misinformed about the realities of the situation.

INSKEEP: Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, yeah.

AL-FAISAL: As the capital of Israel. Of course, he justifies that as being a campaign promise. But other presidents have also done the same thing and refrained from recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel.

INSKEEP: You mentioned President Obama. Did the Iran nuclear deal, in your view, cause Saudis to think, we must be more aggressive...


INSKEEP: ...On our own because the United States is getting friendly with Iran?

AL-FAISAL: No. The nuclear deal was accepted by Saudi Arabia as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. What Saudi Arabia and other countries in the area are alarmed by is that the nuclear deal did not deal with the other challenges that Iran poses, which are the interference in places like Iraq, like Yemen, like Syria. That is what has caused concern in Saudi Arabia and in other countries.

INSKEEP: Are Saudis feeling surrounded by Iran? I just look at a map, and I think Iran is very influential in Iraq, very influential in Syria and Lebanon to one side of Saudi Arabia. And you're in the midst of a war where Iran is supporting one side on the other side of Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

AL-FAISAL: Well, as I mentioned, Iran has not hesitated to interfere in all of these countries, and they boast about it. It's not something that they hide or that they shy from mentioning any. Their leadership has boasted about controlling four Arab capitals. If you look at some of their military commanders of the IRGC and other military divisions of Iran, they boasted about deploying, for example, 200,000 IRGC soldiers throughout the Arab world, so...

INSKEEP: The Revolutionary Guard Corps, we should explain for people.

AL-FAISAL: So that is what they boast about.

INSKEEP: How would you describe then the threat from Iran from where you sit? Is Iran an existential threat to Saudi Arabia or a rival?

AL-FAISAL: It's a very important threat. I don't think they threaten our existence. But definitely, their ambition is to destroy the Saudi state. And this is not new. This is from the time of Khomeini. And you look at the statements made by Khomeini when he first came to power about removing the so-called - the shahs of this world and describing the king of Saudi Arabia as a shah. So they have a long-range project which they've been serving since the revolution in 1979.

INSKEEP: Where does the war in Yemen fit in all of this?

AL-FAISAL: Well, I hope it fits in the scenario of supporting the legitimate government in Yemen. And that's where Saudi Arabia has been since the Houthis tried to take over by military force in the Yemen. And as you know, the Houthis are supported by Iran. They have declared their commitment to Wilayat al-Faqih, the rule of the cleric, which is the Iranian version of Shi'ism (ph). And they get support in the form of not only financial but technical and military support, including these ballistic missiles that they keep lobbing at Saudi Arabia from Yemeni territory with advice and support from Iran. The kingdom responded to the appeal of the legitimate government in Yemen to provide military support to help them push back on this Houthi-cum-Iranian interference in trying to take over in Yemen.

INSKEEP: Although you also face a reality that although Saudi Arabia may have been driven by concern about Iran, what has also happened is that Saudi Arabia has intervened in another country's civil war with innumerable complex local issues that may be difficult to resolve or difficult for Saudi Arabia to escape from.

AL-FAISAL: Well, this was not a matter of choice for us. Yemen is bordering Saudi Arabia. Imagine if Mexico or Canada had started interfering in the affairs of the United States. What would the reaction of America be? It would be to defend itself. Yes, it is complicated. And yes, we are paying a price for that. But I think it is a justifiable defense of our interests.

INSKEEP: Have you been surprised at the level of criticism of Saudi Arabia's performance, the number of civilian deaths, the amount of destruction through the air campaign?

AL-FAISAL: Not surprised. I think that was to be expected from critics of Saudi Arabia who have always been critical. I remember, before the conflict of Yemen began more recently, times when those critics would say, why isn't Saudi Arabia acting? Why do they want us Americans to act for them? And he - President Obama called us free riders. And those same critics are now saying, why is Saudi Arabia interfering? Why is Saudi Arabia taking action and so on? As I told you, we're defending our interests, and I think we will continue to do that. And we feel justified in meeting this challenge with whatever means we can. We're not going to cut and run from there.

INSKEEP: Prince Turki, thank you very much.

AL-FAISAL: Thank you.



That's our own Steve Inskeep speaking with Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence service. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.