John Kerry seeks to reassure Saudi Arabia over talks with Iran
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, visited Saudi Arabia on Monday seeking to repair strained relations with the Gulf monarchy, assuring officials that talks with Iran would not upset Washington’s relationship with Riyadh.
After meeting Saudi’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on the second day of a regional tour aiming to defuse tensions with Arab allies, Mr Kerry said the US remained steadfast in preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon and would keep Riyadh appraised of developments with the Islamic republic.
Speaking at a news conference, Prince Saud al-Faisal, his Saudi counterpart, said: “A true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candour and frankness, rather than mere courtesy.’’
Mr Kerry earlier in the day told employees at the US embassy in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia was “sort of a senior player” in the Arab world. “We need to work with our Saudi friends in an effort to deal with all these issues,” he said, referring to issues including Syria’s civil war, Egypt and the Middle East peace process.
Amid signs that the ongoing nuclear talks could lead to a broader rapprochement between Iran and the US, Saudi Arabia is concerned that better US-Iranian relations could upset the balance of power between the Sunni Gulf states and the Shia Islamic republic.
Riyadh and its neighbours, especially strife-torn Bahrain, have alleged that Tehran is fomenting dissent among the Gulf’s minority Shia population.
Saudi Arabia has also been angered by Washington’s decision to pull back from threatened military strikes on Iranian ally Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
Last month, the kingdom turned down a seat on the UN Security Council, saying it had failed to deal with the Syria crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan was quoted as saying that Riyadh wants a “major shift” in its relations with the US.
Prince Saud said on Monday that any disagreements with the US were “tactical” as he called on Iranian troops to leave Syria, accusing them of helping the regime of Bashar al-Assad to strike his own people.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been backing the rebel opposition to Mr Assad’s regime. Prince Saud said the opposition would have to be included in proposed talks over the crisis in Syria.
Mr Kerry said the US had neither “the legal authority nor desire” to intervene militarily in the civil war, noting concerns at the rise of Islamic extremists within the Syrian opposition.
Ahead of his trip, a senior state department official played down the differences between Saudi Arabia and the US over how to deal with Iran. “It is a question of making sure they [the Saudis] understand the details of how firm our position is” on preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the official said.
Simon Henderson, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said after the recent tensions between the two countries, the comments on Monday from Prince Saud suggested he was “clearly trying to calm the situation”. However, Mr Henderson said “it is not clear whether King Abdullah agrees and it could be that he thinks the problems are more fundamental”.
While the reports about Saudi anger in the US have received a lot of attention in the US, the general view among most Middle East-watchers in Washington has been that the Saudis have few options but to remain a strong partner of the US.