September 29, 2019 / 11:32 PM / 16 days ago

Saudi crown prince warns of escalation with Iran

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s crown prince warned in an interview broadcast on Sunday that oil prices could spike to “unimaginably high numbers” if the world doesn’t come together to deter Iran, but said he preferred a political solution to a military one.

Mohammed bin Salman, speaking to the CBS program “60 Minutes”, also denied ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives last year, but said he ultimately bears “full responsibility” as the kingdom’s de facto leader.

While Khashoggi’s death sparked a global uproar and tarnished the prince’s reputation, the Trump administration’s tense standoff with Saudi Arabia’s enemy Iran has more recently dominated U.S. policy toward Riyadh, especially after Sept. 14 attacks on the heart of the Saudi oil industry.

“If the world does not take a strong and firm action to deter Iran, we will see further escalations that will threaten world interests,” Prince Mohammed, known as MbS, said through a translator. “Oil supplies will be disrupted and oil prices will jump to unimaginably high numbers that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.”

In an interview conducted on Tuesday in Saudi Arabia - his first since the attacks which knocked out more than 5% of global oil supply - he agreed with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that they were an act of war by Iran.

But he said he preferred a peaceful resolution because regional war would collapse the global economy. The United States, European powers and Saudi Arabia have blamed the attacks on Iran, which denies involvement. Instead, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group claimed responsibility.

The prince also said President Donald Trump should meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to craft a new deal on Tehran’s nuclear program and regional activities.

Efforts to bring the two together last week at the United Nations failed. Tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated after the U.S. withdrew last year from a 2015 nuclear deal and reinstated sanctions against Tehran.

‘ABSOLUTELY NOT’

Days before the anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, the prince said: “Absolutely not,” when asked if he had ordered it. But he said he took full responsibility “since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government”.

“This was a mistake. And I must take all actions to avoid such a thing in the future.”

The CIA and some Western governments believe MbS ordered the killing, but Saudi officials have repeatedly said he had no role. Asked about the CIA assessment, MbS asked for “such information” to be revealed.

After initial denials, the official Saudi narrative blamed the murder on rogue operatives. The public prosecutor said then-deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri ordered the repatriation of Khashoggi, a royal insider who became an outspoken critic, but the lead negotiator ordered him killed after discussions for his return failed.

Asked how the killing could have happened without his knowing about it, MbS said: “Some think that I should know what 3 million people working for the Saudi government do daily? It’s impossible that the 3 million would send their daily reports to the leader or the second highest person in the Saudi government.”

The crown prince made similar remarks off-camera in a PBS documentary released last week, publicly indicating for the first time personal responsibility for Khashoggi’s death, which sparked Saudi Arabia’s worst political crisis in a generation.

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and its Middle East Institute, said the comments were “symbolically of value” and might help counter reputational damage including in business circles.

“However it makes no contribution to transparency and getting to the bottom of who did what to whom, why and on whose orders,” he said.

Eleven Saudi suspects have been put on trial in secretive proceedings. A U.N. report called for MbS and other senior Saudi officials to be investigated. Asiri and Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser, were fired over involvement in the operation. Asiri is standing trial, but Qahtani is not.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2019. Mandel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Asked how those two members of his inner circle could have been involved without his knowing, MbS said: “Today the investigations are being carried out. And once charges are proven against someone, regardless of their rank, it will be taken to court, no exception made.”

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was last seen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, where he was to receive papers ahead of his wedding. His body was dismembered and removed from the building. His remains have not been found.

Asked about prominent women activists who have been detained on charges related to human rights work and tarred by local media as traitors, including Loujain al-Hathloul, MbS said: laws “must be respected, until they are reformed.”

Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh; Editing by Peter Cooney, William Maclean and Giles Elgood

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