Obama Seeks to Reassure Saudi King on Iran Talks, Syria

President Barack Obama sought to reassure Saudi King Abdullah that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program won’t undercut the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. partner in the region.

During a meeting yesterday at the king’s desert compound Obama and Abdullah also discussed steps to help opponents of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad while isolating extremists. Even as Obama seeks to bolster Syrian rebel groups, he said in an interview that he remains skeptical about whether using U.S. force would have made a difference.

“It’s not that it’s not worth it. It’s that after a decade of war, you know, the United States has limits,” he told the CBS Evening News. It’s “a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship that we’ve seen in Syria.”

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been strained by the administration’s reluctance to pursue military action in Syria, secret Iran negotiations and its support for the Arab Spring overthrow of former Egyptian president and ally Hosni Mubarak.

There’s been a “basic breakdown of trust coming from Riyadh,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official. “They just don’t feel they have a reliable partner here.”

Shifted Attention

A boom in U.S. energy production may reshape the U.S.-Saudi alliance by making oil less of a bargaining chip. That would give Obama a freer hand on Middle East policy. Energy production didn’t come up in the leaders’ conversation, according to an Obama administration official who briefed reporters after the meeting and asked for anonymity to discuss the details.

Obama arrived in Riyadh yesterday after spending the week in Europe where the crisis in Ukraine dominated discussions with other leaders. While in the Saudi capital, Obama spent an hour on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a U.S. proposal for easing the confrontation over Ukraine.

For the final stop of a six-day trip abroad, the U.S. president shifted his attention for the most part from Ukraine to other pressing foreign policy issues confronting his administration including the Syrian civil war, Iranian nuclear talks and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Tougher Audience

“We will be making clear that even as we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behavior in the region -- its support for Assad, its support for Hezbollah, its destabilizing actions in Yemen and the Gulf -- that those concerns remain constant,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president before the meeting.

Obama and Abdullah met yesterday at the desert retreat under a massive jeweled chandelier, in front of table full of dates and chocolates. They made no public statements.

Obama faced a tougher audience compared to when he last visited Abdullah in Riyadh in 2009. That year, Obama visited Saudi Arabia as part of the same trip on which he delivered a Cairo speech pledging “a new beginning” with the Muslim world. He followed up on that address with a trip to Istanbul to speak directly with Muslim youth.

Rhodes said beforehand that closer coordination regarding Syria in recent months has improved relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.

Opposition Arms

“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.

Saudi rulers have criticized the U.S. decision to abandon plans for military action against the Assad regime.

The official said the White House hasn’t made a decision about whether to allow the Saudis to equip opposition forces with compact missile launcher systems that can be used against low-flying planes and helicopters. The administration has expressed concerns that such weapons might fall into the hands of extremists who could use them against the U.S. or its allies.

The administration official said Obama’s meeting with Abdullah wasn’t designed to coordinate details about types of assistance to supply and the missile system, known as manpads, didn’t specifically come up.

Obama emphasized in the meeting that U.S. and Saudi strategic interests are aligned, including combatting terrorism, keeping the flow of oil through the region secure, and dealing with Iran. Obama and Abdullah didn’t discuss human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, the administration official said.

Sunni-Shiite Divisions

The Saudis want reassurances that Obama isn’t naïve about Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons and the U.S. isn’t seeking accommodation, said Danin. It hits at the regional, religious and philosophical Sunni-Shiite divisions, with the Saudis seeing the U.S. aligning with the Shiites, he said.

“For Saudis it’s not about just nuclear weapons,” he said. “We should be standing with the Sunnis. There’s incredulity.”

Obama was criticized by some advocacy groups for not bringing up human rights during his meeting with Abdullah. The administration official who briefed reporters said Obama didn’t raise the topic.

“The president’s silence demonstrates once again that when it comes to human rights, the U.S. holds repressive allies to a much lower standard than adversaries,” said Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

This morning, Obama presented Saudi domestic abuse activist Maha Al Muneef with a U.S. State Department International Women of Freedom award. Muneef was unable to attend the award ceremony in Washington because of a family health issue, Obama said.

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