By Stephen Kalin
RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince on Monday amid heightened tensions with Tehran after President Donald Trump called off a military strike to retaliate for Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone.
Pompeo thanked King Salman for meeting him on “such short notice” at their talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah, according to a pool report of journalists travelling with him. In reply, the king called Pompeo a “dear friend”.
Pompeo then met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, for a working lunch.
The top U.S. diplomat had told reporters before departing on a trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that Washington wanted talks with Tehran, even as it planned to impose new economic sanctions.
“We’ll be talking with them about how to make sure that we are all strategically aligned, and how we can build out a global coalition, a coalition…that understands this challenge,” Pompeo said.
Relations between longtime foes Iran and the United States have deteriorated since Trump withdrew Washington a year ago from a 2015 accord that curbed Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for easing sanctions.
Tensions have flared following attacks in recent weeks on oil tankers in the Gulf which the United States blames on Iran, the shooting down of the drone last week, and repeated attacks on Saudi airports and oil installations by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis.
Washington and Riyadh have publicly accused Tehran of being behind the tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has denied involvement in the blasts.
The UAE has called for a de-escalation following the attacks, including on four vessels off its coast last month which an initial investigation said was carried out by a state actor without naming a country.
Pompeo is expected to discuss “ways to support maritime security” when he meets Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, the U.S. Mission to the UAE tweeted.
There was no public indication of whether Pompeo would raise with Saudi leaders the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. A U.N. report last week called for the crown prince and other senior officials to be investigated given credible evidence against them.
The Trump administration is pressing the Saudis to show “tangible progress” towards holding to account those behind the killing and wants them to do so before the one-year anniversary of his death on Oct. 2, a senior administration official told Reuters this month.
But Trump told NBC on Sunday he did not discuss the murder in a recent phone call with the crown prince. Asked if the FBI should investigate, he responded: “I think it’s been heavily investigated.”
The murder tarnished the crown prince’s international standing. The CIA and some Western countries believe he ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.
(Reporting By Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Maha El Dahan and Sylvia Westall in Dubai; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)