By Stephen Kalin
RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed Iran and maritime security with rich Gulf Arab allies during a trip to the region on Monday after President Donald Trump called off a military strike to retaliate for Tehran’s downing of a U.S. drone.
Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and had lunch with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before proceeding to the United Arab Emirates for talks with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince.
The discussions covered protection for ships in the Gulf, after attacks on tankers in recent weeks which Washington has blamed on Iran: “Freedom of navigation is paramount,” Pompeo tweeted from the Saudi city of Jeddah.
He thanked King Salman for meeting on “such short notice”, an apparent sign of how quickly the United States has mobilized diplomatic efforts as the confrontation escalates.
The Saudi media ministry said Pompeo and Prince Mohammed reiterated that the “two countries stand side by side in confronting the hostile Iranian activities and in combating terrorism.”
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 program in exchange for easing sanctions.
Tensions have flared following the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran’s downing of the drone last week, and repeated attacks on Saudi airports and oil installations by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis.
Iran said on Monday that U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, while hinting that it could be willing to discuss new concessions if the United States were to lift sanctions and offer new incentives.
Washington and Riyadh have publicly accused Tehran of being behind the tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has denied involvement. The United States has protected the waterway for decades with its naval Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.
Trump said on Monday that other countries, including China and Japan, should protect their own ships there.
There was no immediate indication that Pompeo had raised with Saudi leaders the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year in 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 progress toward holding to account those behind the killing.
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)