Obama and Saudi King Sidestep Dispute Over Iran Nuclear Deal – Peter Baker/New York Times
OCCUPIED WASHINGTON – President Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia moved to put their differences behind them on Friday in a long-delayed White House meeting amid months of tension over the nuclear agreement with Iran and a continuing schism over the way forward in Syria.
King Salman, who refused Mr. Obama’s invitation to a regional summit meeting at Camp David in May in light of the discord over the Iran deal, arrived at the White House ready to accept the agreement and press ahead on other issues. In a show of respect, Mr. Obama greeted the monarch at the entrance of the West Wing and escorted him inside with a friendly hand on the back.
In public comments opening their sessions in the Oval Office, neither leader directly addressed the rift over Iran or acknowledged their disagreements over Syria and Yemen. But they later issued a joint statement saying that the king supported the agreement with Iran and vowing to bolster mutual efforts to combat the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other radical groups in the Middle East.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, said after the meetings that Mr. Obama had reassured the king that the Iran deal would prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is satisfied with these assurances after having spent the last two months consulting with its allies in Europe and other places,” he told reporters. “We believe this agreement will contribute to security and stability in the region by preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.”
He added: “Now we have one less problem to deal with, with regard to Iran, and we can now focus more on their nefarious activities in the region.” He said this was a chance for Iran to become a responsible member of the world community. “We hope that the Iranians will take advantage of this agreement, which allows for a removal gradually of their isolation.”
Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states have been wary of the agreement negotiated with Iran by the United States and five other world powers, seeing Tehran as a menacing force in the region that cannot be trusted. As much as they fear a nuclear-armed Iran in the long run, they are just as concerned about what Tehran will do in the short run with the billions of dollars that will be unfrozen by the lifting of sanctions and become available for financing terrorist allies like Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Saudi embrace of the deal, however grudging the path in getting to this point, offered Mr. Obama a chance to begin moving past the debate over it. Just this week, he secured enough Democratic support to sustain a veto of legislation trying to block it. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado on Friday became the 38th Democrat in the upper house to announce his support, but Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, came out against the deal.
King Salman’s decision to come to Washington was a signal that the Saudis are now focused on making the best of the situation. The king embarrassed Mr. Obama when he invited the leaders of six gulf states to Camp David in the spring to reassure them of American support for their security. The White House initially announced that King Salman would attend, only to be caught off guard when Saudi officials said that he would instead send two top princes to represent him.
Unable to block the Iran agreement, Saudi Arabia indicated that it would concentrate on countering Iran in other ways. The Pentagon is finalizing a $1 billion arms agreement with Saudi Arabia that will provide weapons for its war effort against the Islamic State and Yemen, according to administration officials. Neither side explicitly mentioned that publicly, but the joint statement said the two leaders “discussed fast-tracking the provision of certain military equipment to the kingdom.”
Mr. Obama, however, pressed the king over the conduct of the Saudi-led coalition military operation to restore the government in Yemen, where American officials have expressed concern over the impact on civilians. The king committed to work toward opening Red Sea ports operated under United Nations supervision to allow in more international humanitarian assistance, but the Saudis insisted that any aid be inspected to ensure that weapons were not being provided to Houthi rebels.
Addressing reporters in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama touched briefly on Yemen as well as on Syria, where the two sides cooperate against the Islamic State but have deep disagreements about how to handle the broader civil war. “This is obviously a challenging time in world affairs, particularly in the Middle East,” Mr. Obama said. “So we expect this to be a substantive conversation across a wide range of issues.”
He added: “We share a concern about Yemen and the need to restore a functioning government that is inclusive and that can relieve the humanitarian situation there. We share concerns about the crisis in Syria, and we’ll have the opportunity to discuss how we can arrive at a political transition process within Syria that can finally end the horrific conflict there.”
King Salman made no mention of disagreements. “Once again, Mr. President, I’m happy to come to a friendly country to meet a friend, and we want to work together for world peace,” he said. “Our region must achieve stability, which is essential for the prosperity of its people, and in our country, thank God, we are prosperous, but we want prosperity for the entire region. And we are willing to cooperate with you in order to achieve that.”
Still, analysts said the friendly session only masked a fundamental stress in the relationship, as Saudi leaders worry that Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran reflects a shift toward Riyadh’s historic rival in the region.
“Beneath the smiles and cordiality of this visit lurks a far more complex dynamic,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The Saudis see U.S. policy toward Iran in transition, from decades of containment and confrontation to acquiescence to Iran’s new influence, maybe even cooperation.”
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official under Mr. Obama who now directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said Iran’s nuclear program had never been at the forefront of Saudi concerns.
“Much more worrisome to them is what they view as Iranian efforts at domestic subversion in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and, of course, in Saudi Arabia’s own Eastern Province,” she said. “Fundamentally,” she added, “the Saudis want to hear directly from the president that he remains committed to the U.S. role as security guarantor in the region and to helping them restore stability to a region in chaos.”