- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince denounced the killing of Jamal Khashoggi as a “heinous crime” on Wednesday, breaking a three-week silence on the dissident writer’s death just as Iran attacked its regional rival by claiming Riyadh thought it could get away with murder because of its close ties with the Trump administration.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told a major economic summit in Riyadh on Wednesday that the entire Khashoggi affair has been “a very, very painful incident” for Saudi Arabia and “also for everybody on this planet.” He did not address charges that some of his closest security aides have been implicated in the Oct. 2 death at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and made a particular plea that the incident would not cause a diplomatic break between Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

But shock waves over the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, continued across the Middle East, posing a major challenge to the Trump administration, which has cultivated Saudi Arabia and its ambitious crown prince as a critical ally in the region.

The 33-year-old crown prince, who has claimed in phone calls with President Trump that he had nothing to do with the incident, sought Wednesday to further distance himself from the allegations. He vowed to “bring to justice those who are responsible for this heinous crime.”

The prince went out of his way to placate Turkey a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the blame for the killing squarely on a “hit team” of senior Saudi government officials. Turkish officials have slowly doled out findings from their own investigation, but Mr. Erdogan stopped short in a Tuesday speech of accusing the crown prince or his father, 82-year-old Saudi King Salman, of direct involvement.

In the latest revelation, Turkish media Wednesday published a security camera image showing a vehicle belonging to the Saudi Consulate purportedly scouting a forest in the outskirts of Istanbul before the killing.

The Saudi and Turkish state news agencies both reported that Crown Prince Mohammed and Mr. Erdogan spoke by phone on Wednesday about the Khashoggi case, a call apparently initiated by the crown prince.

“We know that many are trying to use this painful thing to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” the crown prince, widely known by his initials MBS, said in his public remarks in Riyadh. “I want to send them a message: You will never be able to do that.”

The latest in a series of shifting accounts put out by Saudi officials contends that Mr. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist living in self-imposed exile in Virginia, died in a fistfight during an interrogation gone wrong at the consulate. Saudi authorities have arrested 18 people as part of an investigation into the case.

But the prospect of Saudi-Turkish friction still looms.

In his remarks Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan said Saudi authorities had taken an important step in confirming Mr. Khashoggi’s death. “Now we ask Saudi authorities to work hard to reveal the names of those involved, from the bottom to the top,” said the Turkish president, adding that Turkey may seek to have suspects in the case put to trial in his country.

Iran weighs in

On a separate front Wednesday, Iran seized on the Khashoggi affair to embarrass its prime regional rival and undercut the U.S.-Saudi alliance. The Trump administration relies heavily on the Saudis to contain Iran, which Washington accuses of backing terrorist groups and using proxy forces to destabilize the region and threaten Israel and the Gulf Arab states.

While Tehran’s official reaction was initially tempered, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that the Saudis must have thought they could get away with the writer’s “brutal killing” because there would be no retribution from the U.S. government.

“I don’t think that the country dared to commit such a crime without U.S. support,” Mr. Rouhani said in remarks to his Cabinet in Tehran, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency.

He compared the situation to Saudi Arabia’s troubled military campaign in Yemen, where a Riyadh-led coalition backed by Washington is battling Iran-supported Houthi rebels. Mr. Rouhani claimed the Saudis are emboldened to carry out human rights abuses in Yemen as long as they have America’s support.

With anger in Congress mounting over the Khashoggi killing, speculation is mounting that Mr. Trump could scale back U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen. But Mr. Trump has resisted jumping to conclusions and said Tuesday that he will work with Congress on an appropriate response.

But the president has also expressed his personal anger over the journalist’s death and promised that the U.S. will exact “severe” punishment — likely in the form of sanctions — against any Saudis implicated in the killing.

The crown prince delivered his remarks Wednesday at a highly touted investment conference in Riyadh that has been largely overshadowed by the Khashoggi crisis. Many U.S. and European officials and business leaders skipped the three-day gathering, but there were signs some Saudi allies were sticking with Riyadh. Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri appeared with the prince at the conference.

‘Leverage’ for Trump?

Mr. Khashoggi’s death has fueled criticism that Mr. Trump and his aides are being exploited by a dangerous young authoritarian leader in the Middle East. But some analysts say the developments of the past three weeks present the Trump administration with an opening to exert pressure on Riyadh to do more to help U.S. strategy in the region.

Mr. Trump now has “leverage and opportunity” when it comes to dealing with the crown prince, said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Mr. Indyk, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told reporters Wednesday that Mr. Trump should push on the crown prince to end the messy Saudi military campaign in Yemen and pressure Riyadh to pump more oil into the global market as the U.S. gears up sanctions to cut off Iran’s oil exports.

After Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the administration has vowed to push Tehran’s oil exports to “zero” by Nov. 4, while key allies such as India and Turkey remain heavily dependent on Iranian suppliers.

Mr. Indyk noted that if the administration is able to uphold an international embargo on Iranian crude, it would likely trigger a sudden increase in global oil prices unless other major suppliers — led by Saudi Arabia — step in.

“There is a feeling that if Saudis don’t make up for the shortfall created by sanctions on Iran, the price could rise, presenting serious challenges for the global economy,” he said.

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