Saudi Arabia's King Salman and his defense minister support the Iran nuclear deal but have doubts about how effectively the historic agreement will be enforced, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday.
The Saudis appear to have reconciled themselves to the Iran deal, judging from Carter's comments.
Carter spoke to reporters after meeting in Jiddah with the king and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.
"They both – the king and the minister of defense – reiterated their support" for the deal, Carter said. "The only reservations we discussed were ones that we clearly share, namely that we attend to verification of the agreement as it's implemented," and the use of a "snap-back" mechanism for quickly re-imposing sanctions on Iran if the Islamic Republic cheats on any part of the agreement to limit its nuclear program to peaceful pursuits.
"Those are the same issues that we know will arise" as the deal is implemented, Carter said.
Some experts say reinstating sanctions would be more difficult than the term "snap back" implies.
What Carter described as Saudi support for the Iran nuclear deal stands in contrast to Israel's strong opposition, which Carter heard in blunt terms Tuesday in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For strikingly similar reasons, the Saudis and the Israelis worry that the nuclear accord will embolden and strengthen Iran. Israel fears it will clear a path for Iran to build nuclear weapons for potential use against the Jewish state, while the Saudis worry that a nuclear Iran could trigger a regional arms race. Both also worry that an Iran freed of economic sanctions would strengthen its support for Shiite proxy groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, posing greater danger to Israel, and the Houthis in Yemen, on the Saudi border.
Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its chief regional and ideological foe, as well as its rival in the OPEC oil cartel. The Saudis decry what they call Iranian efforts to undermine Sunni dominated Gulf Arab states, and their military intervention in Yemen is evidence of how deeply they worry about Iranian support for the Shiite Houthis rebels.
The Saudis see the Houthis, with military support from Iran, as giving Tehran a foothold on Saudi Arabia's doorstep. In addition to providing arms to the rebels, Iran has placed a small number of military advisers in Yemen to train the Houthis to use those weapons, according to a senior Western diplomat who spoke to reporters in Jiddah. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence information.
Carter said he discussed the Yemen crisis with the Saudi leaders as well as plans to extend U.S.-Saudi military cooperation, including joint training and efforts to improve the kingdom's defenses against ballistic missiles and cyberattack.
In his exchange with reporters after meeting with Saudi leaders, Carter was asked whether the Saudis are overstating the extent of Iranian support for the Houthis.
"The Iranian influence with the Houthis is real," he said, "and we have taken steps to check Iranian ... resupply of the Houthis. He added that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia agree that the Yemen civil war has no military solution and must be resolved through a political settlement.
Carter also said the 79-year-old king will visit the United States in September. It would be his first trip to Washington since assuming the throne in January.
President Barack Obama invited the king to a summit with Gulf leaders at Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland, in May, but Salman declined.
In an exchange of pleasantries as he greeted Carter at Al-Salam Palace, the king said he wished he could have attended the Camp David gathering, adding, "During that time there was a difficult situation in Yemen," according to an official Saudi translator.
A Saudi-led coalition launched an aerial bombing campaign in Yemen in March aimed at rebels, known as Houthis, who seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in September. More than 1,690 civilians have been killed since the airstrikes began, the United Nations said Tuesday, and Yemen is suffering a major humanitarian crisis.