The first White House visit by a Middle Eastern leader since President Obama secured enough congressional support for the Iran nuclear deal will not be about looking backward, but about US reassurances and commitments going forward.
While Iran is indeed likely to dominate the conversation Friday between Mr. Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, the nuclear deal won’t be the crux of it, regional experts say.
The Saudi king will still be wanting to thwart a nuclear-armed Iran, which under the deal should be at least a decade away. But even more important, his aim will be to keep Iran’s regional ambitions and meddling in check.
The Saudis will also want to know that Obama does not see the Iran deal as the US ticket out of the Middle East, some say. At the same time, they don’t want to see relations between the United States and Iran get any too friendly.
“The king will be looking for reassurances that the Iran nuclear deal will not spell a sea change in US policy in terms of treating Iran as a potential ally in the region rather than the adversary it’s been since 1979,” says James Phillips, a senior research fellow in Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“The Saudis are fixated on Iran and, along with other Gulf states, feel threatened by its actions in the region,” he says. “It’s that context that gives the Saudis their ultimate nightmare of seeing this nascent détente between the US and Iran become an entente.”
The Saudis and other Arabs are concerned that the US is intent on an exit from the region, Mr. Phillips says. “They worry the US may parlay its new relations with Iran to facilitate that exit.”
To allay those concerns, Obama would have to make commitments to step up US involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and to counter Iranian influence in the region. But few analysts expect that will be forthcoming – either in Friday’s visit or down the road.
White House officials discussing Salman’s visit with reporters in a conference call Wednesday suggested that, while the US will remain a steadfast partner to allies like Saudi Arabia, the administration also wants to encourage a regional policy that’s less dependent on the US – something the Saudis have already embarked on.
The Obama administration has been “looking to support Saudi efforts to build their own capabilities and build their own capacity to act,” Jeff Prescott, National Security Council senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf, told reporters.
Salman is coming to Washington with firm doubts that won’t be easily lifted in any case, analysts say. They note that the king, who rose to the throne in January, expressed his displeasure with Obama’s Mideast polices – particularly toward Syria – by sitting out the summit of Gulf countries that Obama held at Camp David in May.
The Saudis do have their worries about the implications of the nuclear deal. They fear it will embolden Iran – and provide the country with billions of dollars in sanctions relief – to ramp up activities in the region. Those include Iran’s backing of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as well as its support of terrorist organizations and proxy groups, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But the Obama administration also has its concerns about Saudi actions in the region.
One is that the Saudis are using their go-it-alone approach to Syria to offer support to Islamist rebel groups that the US considers too extreme. Another is that the Saudi intervention in Yemen is deepening a conflict that is adding another humanitarian crisis to the region and giving the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda wider freedom of action.
“We’re deeply concerned about, in particular, the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” Mr. Prescott said.
While such concerns may be legitimate, some say the US needs to do more to make clear that it is not cutting loose partners like Saudi Arabia, and not abandoning the region.
The US has been assisting the Saudis in Yemen by blocking Iranian arms deliveries to the conflict, notes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. But, he says, the US should do more to reassure the Saudis that it recognizes the common interests they share on Yemen.
“The prospects of a hostile, pro-Iranian regime that might grant air or sea facilities in a country that shares a 1,300 kilometer border with Saudi Arabia ... [affect] vital Saudi strategic interests, as well as those of the United States,” Mr. Cordesman says in an analysis of the Salman visit on the CSIS website.
Phillips of Heritage says he expects Obama to give Salman little more than “platitudes of support” – because anything more would go against the president’s cautious approach to the region.
But Cordesman says Obama could go a long way in reassuring the Saudis just by stating a determination to counter any Iranian effort to use a windfall from the nuclear deal to foment more mischief in the region.
Obama, he says, can “make it unambiguously and publicly clear that the United States will join its Arab allies to offset any Iranian misuse of the resources made available by the lifting of sanctions that adds to Iran’s other threats in the region.”
That, he adds, would include “its efforts to expand its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.”