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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two big oil producers are such bitter rivals, they don't even agree on what to call the body of water that separates them.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Iran is on the northern shore of what's commonly called the Persian Gulf. That's a nod to Iran, which was once called Persia. Saudi Arabia is just south of that same gulf. It's a majority-Arab country, and people often called it the Arabian Gulf. Now, aside from geography, both nations have spent their oil money on an arms race and proxy wars, but now they're mending relations, and their foreign ministers met today.

INSKEEP: That meeting was in Beijing. China has been brokering their talks. NPR's Aya Batrawy is appropriately in between the two nations of Iran and Saudi Arabia. She's in Dubai. Welcome to the program.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: How big a step is this meeting?

BATRAWY: So this is big. I mean, this is the first time the foreign ministers from both countries are meeting face to face in more than seven years. In 2016, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shia cleric as part of a mass execution. And Iranian protesters - they responded by ransacking Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran. So tensions were high for years after that. But a couple of years ago, they started quietly meeting to cool things down. But this is the first time we see the foreign ministers meeting face to face. And it's not just about optics. This could usher in a major regional realignment. And we're already seeing some of that take shape.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, what does that look like in places like, well, Syria or Yemen? And I'll mention that in both of those places there are civil wars, and Iran and Saudi Arabia are using their money to back opposite sides in those civil wars.

BATRAWY: Exactly. So those years of wars have torn these countries apart. They've impacted the region. And what we're seeing, though, is that this deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran could help bring an end to the political stalemate in both of those countries. We're already seeing Arab states like Saudi Arabia restore ties with Syria's government that is backed by Iran. And in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been bombing Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, there's a push for permanent end to that conflict that's killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions. But this also impacts other countries like Iraq and Lebanon, where powerful Iranian-backed militias have influence and where Saudi has backed opposite factions there.

But keep in mind that just a few years ago, the Saudis had blamed Iran for a missile and drone strike on their oil facility that knocked out production. So the fact that we're seeing these two countries now sitting face to face in China is a sign that they want to pivot. And that's because Saudi Arabia wants to get out of the Yemen war and wants to really focus its priority now on the big, major developments that the crown prince is launching to create jobs within the kingdom. Iran is isolated diplomatically. They're under U.S. sanctions. There were protests across cities in recent months. And so what this provides for them is an opportunity to kind of end that isolation and to open up new trade and investment with the region's biggest economy, which is Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: What obstacles do they face?

BATRAWY: There are definitely obstacles here because the core issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran haven't really changed. Saudi Arabia is extremely concerned about Iran's nuclear program. They're concerned about the reach of Iran's paramilitary force and their proxy militias. They're concerned about ballistic missiles and drones that are now being used by Russia and Ukraine. But look, this deal was brought together by China, a major oil client for both Saudi Arabia and Iran. And China's been vying for more influence in the Middle East. And this deal as a broker threatens the U.S. dominance in this part of the world. And Gulf nations don't trust the U.S. will defend it against Iran, so the strains in that relationship really gave China an opening. But it's still an open question whether Beijing has enough clout to guarantee that this deal will be seen through on the ground.

INSKEEP: I guess we'll keep listening for your reporting then. NPR's Aya Batrawy, thanks so much.

BATRAWY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is a holy time of year for people who are Muslim and also those who are Jewish.

MARTÍNEZ: The Jewish Passover began last night, and we are in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The overlap on the calendar matches the overlap on the ground in the Old City of Jerusalem. Jewish and Muslim holy sites are built atop one another, and this week they are the scene of violence. Israeli police raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Palestinians shot fireworks at police.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Tel Aviv. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's been happening in that crowded space in the Old City?

ESTRIN: Well, we've seen disturbing images come out of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This is cell phone footage where you see Israeli police using batons, and they've repeatedly beat Palestinians who are on the floor of the mosque. This is what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: So you have a woman there shouting, oh, God, oh, God. And meanwhile, Palestinians were shooting fireworks at police inside the mosque. The U.S. embassy, top U.N. officials spoke out, said they were shocked and appalled. And then Hamas and Gaza launched rockets toward Israel, and Israel retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza. None of that caused injuries. But all of that was two nights ago. And then last night, the Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque again. They appeared to be more restrained last night, but Palestinians still aimed fireworks at them. You saw these images of red and green sparks and smoke inside the mosque. And violence spread. There was an Israeli civilian who shot a young Palestinian in Jerusalem. There was more rocket fire out of Gaza, and there were protests by Palestinian citizens of Israel.

INSKEEP: Daniel, is there a connection between the holy times on the calendar that A mentioned and the unholy violence that you're describing?

ESTRIN: Oh, yeah. I mean, the context here is that fundamentalist Jewish activists have been calling to slaughter a goat on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. This was an ancient Passover tradition that took place thousands of years ago when the temple stood there. And so young Palestinians have stockpiled fireworks and rocks at the mosque, and they're, you know, trying to confront Jewish activists. And so then police stormed the mosque to break this up. And that's when you have video of all this mayhem spreading, and it prompts alarm in the region. Yesterday, the Arab League met.

INSKEEP: People where you are must be concerned about this getting even further out of control.

ESTRIN: Yeah, this is really turning into an international incident where you have Egypt and Jordan and the U.S. all working behind the scenes calling for calm. The U.N. Security Council is meeting today. They're all trying to contain the violence, but it's really hard to tell if all these tensions can be contained. We have seen in recent years how violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque can ripple outwards, and this year we have new combustible factors. Israel's far right is in power. They are hostile toward Palestinians. We've had a lot of West Bank violence in recent months. And we also have internal turmoil inside Israel over a controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary. That is adding to this sense of instability as well. And so looking ahead in the coming days and in the coming week, we're going to see large numbers of Jews and Muslims gathering in Jerusalem for Passover and Ramadan. And you just see how fragile this situation is when any small act of violence gets caught on camera, and then it can quickly spread and provoke wider conflict.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv in Israel. Daniel, glad you're there. Thanks for your insights.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The Tennessee House of Representatives votes today on expelling three Democratic lawmakers.

MARTÍNEZ: The lawmakers led chants alongside pro-gun control protesters in the House Gallery last week, just days after Covenant School shooting in Nashville occurred. Only two House members have been expelled since the 1800s, and both times it was through a bipartisan vote.

INSKEEP: Not so bipartisan this time. Political reporter Blaise Gainey of WPLN has been following this fight. Good morning.

BLAISE GAINEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: A alluded to the events that led up to this. Give me the bigger story. What happened?

GAINEY: Yeah. So after that school shooting you referenced, thousands of protesters, including school-aged kids and parents, took to the Capitol to demand tighter gun restrictions. Their demands were not acknowledged by Republican leaders, who continued business as usual. As a result, those protests grew, and on Thursday during the House floor session, three Democrats - Representatives Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Justin J. Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville - were upset that the protests were being ignored. They took to the podium and began chanting using a megaphone. Here's some of what that sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Whose House?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our House.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Whose House?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our House.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Whose House?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our House.

INSKEEP: I guess this is a violation of decorum of the House of Representatives for lawmakers who are not actually in charge to get up there and chanting using a megaphone in the House of Representatives. That is why they would be expelled. But how have they responded to the move against them?

GAINEY: Yeah, so they've responded by basically saying that, you know, them being expelled for something, you know, sort of minor and just a House rule being broken is too harsh of a penalty. As you mentioned earlier, the only people to be expelled before were literally committing crimes and accused of sexual assault, so things that were much more serious. But the community around them also is saying the same, that they shouldn't be expelled, and if they are expelled, 210,000 people will lose their representative.

INSKEEP: Oh, and I guess we should mention these, of course, would be Democratic-leaning districts, or at least districts that elected Democrats to this heavily Republican legislature.

GAINEY: That is correct.

INSKEEP: They're from around Nashville. Is that right?

GAINEY: So Justin Jones is in Nashville. You know, so all the supporters know him. He was an activist before. He's held sit-ins and led protests before being elected. Justin J. Pearson is from Memphis, also a blue dot in this red state. Gloria Johnson is from Knoxville, where - the side of her county where she's at leans a little more Democrat, but the actual county is essentially Republican.

INSKEEP: OK. You mentioned one of them, Justin J. Pearson. I believe we've got some sound of Representative Pearson talking about his potential expulsion. Let's listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN J PEARSON: We are not experiencing democracy in our voices being silenced. If they have a partisan vote - the first partisan vote to expel House members is and should frighten every Tennessean, and it should frighten Americans.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, how are Republicans explaining this move?

GAINEY: Yeah, I mean, the House speaker has called the three insurrectionists and said they were trying to incite a riot, and since they've broken so many House rules, they should be expelled.

INSKEEP: All right. We'll continue following this story, too. Blaise Gainey of WPLN, thanks so much.

GAINEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.