Obama tries to reassure Saudis on Iran deal
LONDON - After White House meeting between Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and US President Barack Obama, Riyadh publicly reiterated its satisfaction with US assurances regarding the nuclear deal with Iran. But experts expect underlying differences between the countries to linger.
In a statement issued after the September 4th meeting, the leaders “affirmed the need to continue efforts to maintain security, prosperity and stability in the region and in particular to counter Iran’s destabilising activities”. Neither Obama nor Salman, however, took direct questions about their talks.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir said Obama assured the king that the agreement prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, includes inspections of military and suspected sites and has a provision for the snapback of sanctions if Iran violates the agreement.
Under those conditions, Jubeir said, Saudi Arabia supported the deal.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours, nonetheless, fear that the relief of sanctions against Iran will give the Islamic Republic additional resources to pursue hostile regional policies, including support for groups such as Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi militia, with which Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a war since March.
The problem of Iran’s regional aggressiveness and meddling has been Riyadh’s primary concern, so the relief of sanctions in some ways is more of a threat than is Tehran’s nuclear programme.
More deeply, some in Saudi Arabia fear that the US administration is pinning hopes on the nuclear deal to usher in a détente in US-Iranian relations, under which Washington would acquiesce to Tehran’s desire to be recognised as a dominant — perhaps the dominant — power in the Gulf region.
“The partnership is still alive but under new terms,” Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of the soon-to-be launched Al-Arab news channel said.
“Saudi Arabia realised that America changed in the last decade with the Iraq war and the Obama administration not interested in playing a direct role in the region, so this caused Saudi Arabia to become more assertive,” said Khashoggi, who is a former media adviser to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal.
Khashoggi said differences still exist on issues such as Syria and that the kingdom is likely to continue trying to persuade the United States to support Riyadh’s objectives, which focus on removing the Iranian-backed Assad regime.
“The new partnership is Saudi Arabia taking the initiative and the lead in the region and for the United States to stand by the kingdom. It worked in Yemen and it should work elsewhere,” Khashoggi added.
But the Saudis want more than a United States that passively “stands by” the kingdom. Numerous sources in Washington report that the Pentagon is finalising a $1 billion arms package for Riyadh.
Also on the Obama-Salman agenda was Yemen, with Obama declaring that an inclusive, functioning government in Sana’a that could relieve the humanitarian crisis was a shared priority for both nations.
The United States has supported the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Iran-allied Houthi rebels. However, despite its military and logistical support for the war, the Obama administration also says it is concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
This was the first official visit by Salman since his coronation in January. He was invited to the summit of GCC leaders at Camp David in May but cancelled at the last minute, sending Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, who is also defence minister, instead.
At the time, US media labelled the king’s absence as a snub. Both governments denied that interpretation. It was clear, however, the Iran nuclear deal exacerbated the confidence gap between the two countries.