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Mattis Travels To Saudi Arabia


Pretty interesting moment for President Trump. Now, during the campaign, let's remember, he trashed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. And now he has ordered a review of that deal, especially the lifting of sanctions on the country. But at the same time, the Trump administration is acknowledging that the deal seems to be working. Iran is complying. And that is the backdrop for a trip taking place right now. Defense Secretary James Mattis is in the Mideast, stopping in countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. And this is not the only news in Egypt, where an Egyptian-American aid worker has just been released from prison this morning, perhaps with help from the Trump administration. Let's talk through all of this with NPR's Jane Arraf who is - has a busy reporting day in Cairo.

Jane, good morning.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Well, let's start with the aid worker Aya Hijazi who you have talked about on our program. She was held for two years. Just remind us who she is.

ARRAF: So she's an Egyptian-American. She graduated from George Mason University, came to Egypt and saw all these three kids who were working for a living, couldn't go to school, being abused. And she started a foundation along with Egyptian husband. Now shortly after that, she was arrested. And the charges were incredible at the time and never proved, which is why she is now free. They were that she was sexually exploiting and trafficking children. Those charges were all dropped. And her lawyer tells us that last night, she was able to walk out of jail and is now at home.

GREENE: Well, that's good news for her and her family, obviously. What does her case and the fact that she served prison time when she was trying to do something that seems so lovely and help children - what does it say about that country right now?

ARRAF: Well, it's a really interesting time in Egypt right now. And really, what she has been through is a very high-profile case that is really the tip of the iceberg. Egypt argues that it has something like 40,000 unregulated non-governmental organizations. And it says it's just trying to regulate them. But the effect it's had is to shut down almost all of these organizations. They recently shut down, for instance, a center for the victims of torture. I mean, Egypt, like a lot of countries in the region, as you know, is trying to reach this balance between human rights and some elements of freedom and maintaining security. And here in Egypt and a lot of other countries they're coming down very heavily on the side of security.

So it was a warning in a sense. It had a chilling effect. And the fact that she's free, a lot of legal and human rights people would argue, doesn't mean there has been a huge change of heart here in Egypt. A lot of that actually has to do with some U.S. pressure regarding her case.

GREENE: What was that pressure? I mean, did the Trump administration actually help get her out?

ARRAF: Well, they seem to have. Now, President Trump has been very clear that he is not going to be the President Obama that Egypt and the rest of the region is used to. He has said when he has criticisms, he's going to raise them privately. And that was music to the Egyptian president's ears because nobody likes to be criticized. Egypt in particular does not like to be, as it sees it lectured on human rights.

But at the same time, there was pressure brought to bear. There were U.S. Congress people who have raised this case. And senior administration officials are also believed to have privately raised the case. I think it's quite telling as well that she, in fact, is free just before a fairly high-profile visit of of the U.S. defense secretary. Her husband and the other six who were also acquitted are still in jail - expected to be released soon, but they seem to have made sure that she at last - at least was free before this visit.

GREENE: Well, let me turn to the other big story that's sort of the backdrop to this visit by Defense Secretary James Mattis, and that's Iran. I just want to play a little bit of what then-candidate Donald Trump said last spring about that big nuclear agreement that President Obama agreed to with Iran.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He negotiated a disastrous deal with Iran. And then we watched them ignore its terms even before the ink was dry. Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon - cannot be allowed - remember that - cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon...


TRUMP: ...And under a Trump administration will never, ever be allowed to have that nuclear weapon.

GREENE: OK. Jane Arraf, help me understand this moment. It seems like a weird spot. President Trump is ordering this review saying maybe lifting sanctions on Iran was a bad idea. But his administration is also telling Congress that this deal seems to be working. Iran is complying. So which is it?

ARRAF: So I think the thing to remember about Iran is that it is at the center of a lot of the regional dynamics but also at the center of a lot of the dynamics in Washington right now. So President Trump is faced with a really difficult dilemma. He has said what he has said, saying it was a disastrous deal. But at the same time, he does have to acknowledge what seem to be facts according to the international monitors who are monitoring Iran's nuclear program, which is that they are actually complying to the terms of the deal. So he can't get them on that.

The review on sanctions is perhaps a different thing. That they should stop lifting the sanctions is certainly a controversial point. But it really comes back to the fact that there is no right policy, in many people's view, on Iran - not right policy. But he's in a dilemma. Everyone is in a dilemma regarding Iran. And in fact, what to do about Iran is at the center of almost every discussion here, including the discussions that the defense secretary is having when he comes to the Middle East - in the Middle East this week.

GREENE: That's probably going to come up a lot with other Mideast leaders. I mean, this is also of course, Jane, this trip by Mattis, coming at a time with a lot of tensions with Russia over the civil war in Syria, the use of chemical weapons, the U.S. missile attack on a Syrian air base. There have even been reports that Russia has had war planes flying close to Alaska. Has Mattis said anything about all this?

ARRAF: Well, on his flight over, he told reporters traveling with him on his first stop in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, that the United States was working to de-conflict operations with Russia. What that means, basically, is that they're trying to make sure that there isn't an incident they hadn't bargained for with Russian planes being in their airspace, vice versa.

GREENE: Oh, some kind of conflict that was unintended between the U.S. and Russia if they're both operating there.

ARRAF: Exactly. And that's kind of a limited - it's a limited view of what they're trying to do because it's a much bigger issue than that. But what everyone is worried about, of course, is that there could be an incident unintended that could spark much bigger tensions. And there's already a lot of ground for tension between Russia and the U.S., despite what seemed like a really warming relationship very early on in President Trump's presidency.

GREENE: Yeah, it sure did. Well, events can certainly change things for a new president. That is NPR's Jane Arraf covering a number of stories for us this morning in Cairo. Jane, thanks as always.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "THOUGHT 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.