President Obama on Friday sought to allay Saudi concerns that Washington was disengaging from the Middle East’s regional conflicts, reportedly telling 89-year-old King Abdullah that US interests broadly overlap with Riyadh’s position on Iran and Syria.
The Saudis have been concerned about a recent thaw in US-Iranian relations. Last fall, Washington agreed to ease some of its economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Tehran rolling back its uranium enrichment. Riyadh has reportedly been worried that easing sanctions will ultimately embolden the Islamic Republic to act aggressively in the region.
According to a senior White House official, Obama told Abdullah that the US “won’t accept a bad deal and that the focus on the nuclear issue doesn’t mean we are not concerned about, or very much focused on Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.” Tehran is a supporter of the Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Sunni militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“I think it was important to have the chance to come look him in the eye and explain how determined the president is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” the official told the Reuters news agency on the condition of anonymity.
Mending fences on Syria
President Obama and King Abdullah also discussed the civil war in Syria. Saudi Arabia has reportedly been pressuring the US to provide the rebels with more robust support for their fight against President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally.
So far, Washington has provided the rebels with small arms and humanitarian aid. But the White House has been reluctant to provide them with heavier weapons, such as shoulder-fired missiles that can down planes. Islamist militants with links to al Qaeda are also fighting the Assad regime, raising concern in Washington that US weapons could fall into their hands.
The White House’s deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, told reporters that one of the main topics of discussion was “how do we best empower the moderate opposition inside Syria politically, militarily as a counterweight to Assad.”
Rhodes said that coordination with the Saudis on supporting the Syrian rebels had improved. “That’s part of the reason why I think our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy,” he said.
The Washington Post had reported on Friday that the White House was prepared to increase covert aid to the rebels and was considering delivering shoulder-fired missiles, called MANPADs.
But a senior administration official told the news agency AFP that the administration was still opposed to delivering MANPADs to the rebels.
slk/crh (AP, AFP, Reuters)