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Pompeo Visits Saudi Arabia Following Oil Facilities Attack

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a last-minute trip to Saudi Arabia. He went to see what the kingdom's leaders want to do about last weekend's attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Pompeo and the Saudis have accused Iran of being behind the strikes. The secretary told reporters Iran is the focus of these talks.

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MIKE POMPEO: That's my mission here is to work with our partners in the region. We are working to build out a coalition to develop a plan to deter them. And this is what needs to happen.

SHAPIRO: Iran denies being involved. And Iranian-backed forces in Yemen claimed responsibility. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Pompeo. And she joins us now from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Pompeo has made the strongest accusations against Iran, more than others in this administration. Did the secretary on the flight over offer any evidence to reporters?

KELEMEN: Not a lot of evidence so far but a lot of tough language. He called it an act of war, and he said this was an Iranian attack. He basically told us, Ari, not to believe the claims by Houthi rebels in Yemen that they did this. He said the attack didn't come from the south, where Yemen's located and where the Saudis have been fighting Houthis for years. And Pompeo says that the kind of weapons that were found at the site of the Saudi oil processing facility are not known to have been in the Houthi arsenal. So again, this is the kind of negatives that he uses. He said the U.S. intelligence community has high confidence that these were not weapons that would have been in the possession of the Houthis. So, basically, circumstantial evidence at the moment - I think he's trying to build a case to bring to U.S. allies and partners.

SHAPIRO: Calling this an act of war is a powerful phrase. Who is Pompeo meeting with while he's in Saudi Arabia?

KELEMEN: He had talks tonight and a working dinner with Mohammed bin Salman. He - that's Saudi Arabia's crown prince, who lost a lot of credibility last year after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist. And Mohammed bin Salman has also played a key role in the war in Yemen, which has really not gone well for the Saudis or the Yemenis, of course. After tonight, Pompeo's going tomorrow to the United Arab Emirates. That's another key partner in countering Iran.

SHAPIRO: There are already such strict sanctions against Iran. What kinds of steps are Pompeo and the Saudis talking about in these meetings?

KELEMEN: Well, for now they seem to be just building this case and making sure there's a united front and, you know, bringing it to the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. General Assembly is next week, so this is a big diplomatic push to tell the world that we've got to do something about this Iranian threat since this is not just a regional threat. It's a threat against the oil infrastructure of the country and a large percentage of the global economy. So that's what they seem to be working on at the moment - continuing this work of sanctions. Pompeo argues that this pressure campaign that the U.S. has been on is working. Even though that Iran has - he's also accused Iran of carrying out a hundred attacks in recent months, so there's a lot of concerns that things may escalate here.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly I have to ask does do something about this threat from Iran mean war? Are they talking about military action?

KELEMEN: Well, President Trump has made clear he's not interested in getting dragged into a conflict. He's talking mostly about sanctions, but he's also not taking anything off the table. And I have to say there is a lot of concern among diplomats that things can escalate if there's not really a diplomatic off ramp.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen, traveling with the secretary of state in Saudi Arabia.

Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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