World

Saudi Arabia's new crown prince shares Trump's hawkish views of Iran

Saudi King's son becomes next in line to throne, gets sweeping powers

WASHINGTON: Saudi Arabia's new crown prince and likely next king shares US President Donald Trump's hawkish view of Iran, but a more confrontational approach toward Teheran carries a risk of escalation in an unstable region, current and former US officials said.

Iran will almost certainly respond to a more aggressive posture by the US and its chief Sunni Arab ally in battlefields where Riyadh and Teheran are engaged in a regional tussle for influence.

Saudi King Salman made his son Mohammed bin Salman next in line to the throne on Wednesday, handing the 31-year-old sweeping powers in a succession shake-up.

Prince Mohammed, widely referred to as "MbS," has ruled out any dialogue with arch-rival Iran and pledged to protect his conservative kingdom from what he called Teheran's efforts to dominate the Muslim world.

In the first meeting between Mr Trump and Prince Mohammed at the White House in March, they noted the importance of "confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities".

But that could have unintended consequences, said some current and former US administration officials.

The greatest danger for the Trump administration, a long-time US government expert on Middle East affairs said, was for the US to be dragged deeper into the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict playing out across the Middle East, a danger that could be compounded by Mr Trump's delegation of responsibility for military decisions to the Pentagon.

If the administration gives US commanders greater authority to respond to Iranian air and naval provocations in the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, things could easily spiral out of control, the official said.

US-backed forces fighting in Syria are also in close proximity with Iranian-backed forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. US military jets twice this month shot down Iranian-made drones threatening US and coalition forces in south-eastern Syria.

The US also supports the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen through refueling, logistics and limited intelligence assistance.

"If we were to witness an incident at sea between an Iranian and a US vessel in the Gulf, at a time of immense distrust and zero communication, how likely is it that the confrontation would be defused rather than exacerbated?" said Mr Rob Malley, vice-president for policy at the International Crisis Group.

"If there's a more bellicose attitude towards Iran, Iran is likely to respond," said Mr Malley, a former senior adviser on Middle East affairs under former president Barack Obama.

Mr Eric Pelofsky, who dealt with Middle East issues at the White House under Mr Obama, said the administration had "laboured pretty hard to avoid a direct clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the high seas," in part because it would expand the Yemen conflict and there were questions "about what the outcome of such an encounter might be."- REUTERS

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