By Scott Stearns
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Saudi Arabia for talks with King Abdullah about Syria’s civil war and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program — issues that are straining U.S.-Saudi relations.
Kerry is hoping to get long-standing ties between Washington and Riyadh back on track after differences over Syria and Iran.
Saudi Arabia last month rejected a United Nations Security Council seat to protest what it called “double standards” over the U.N.’s failure to act in Syria’s civil war, where President Bashar al-Assad is backed by Shi’ite leaders in Iran.
Saudi Arabia, which supports the mostly-Sunni Muslim rebels fighting Mr. Assad, was disappointed that Washington backed off its threat of missile strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons in favor of a U.S.-Russian plan to destroy those munitions.
Speaking to reporters in Cairo Sunday before traveling to Riyadh, Kerry said the United States and Saudi Arabia share the same goals in Syria.
“There are some countries in the region that wanted the United States to do one thing with respect to Syria, and we have done something else,” he said. “Those differences on an individual tactic on a policy do not create a difference on the fundamental goal of the policy.”
Kerry said Washington and Riyadh are both working toward a Syrian transitional government that does not include Assad.
The Syrian leader wants Iran to be part of talks on that interim authority. U.S. officials say they have made clear to their Saudi allies that Washington will oppose Iran’s inclusion unless Tehran first agrees to the underlying principles of the executive authority of that transitional government.
Saudi leaders are also concerned about apparent progress in international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program, with both Saudi Arabia and Israel questioning Iran’s sincerity. Iran’s new government is working to ease crippling economic sanctions tied to suspicions that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Kerry said the Obama administration understands regional security concerns about Iran and is committed to its “major defensive relationships” in the Middle East.
“We will be there for Saudi Arabia, for the Emirates, for Qataris, for the Jordanians, for the Egyptians and others,”: he said. “We will not allow those countries to be attacked from outside. We will stand with them.”
Saudi Arabia is also helping to fund a military-backed interim government in Egypt, from which the United States is withholding some major weapons systems because of violence that followed July’s coup against the country’s first democratically elected leader.
Former U.S. ambassador Adam Ereli says increasingly divergent views between Riyadh and Washington reflect a more muscular Saudi foreign policy.
“Look, Saudi Arabia’s vital national interests are in play here,” he said. “In Syria. In Yemen. In Egypt.”
Ereli says the Obama administration is neglecting Saudi Arabia at its own peril.
“How can you take Saudi Arabia for granted? What are you kidding me? They’re our 12th-largest trading partner,” he said.
Kerry has twice visited Saudi Arabia as secretary of state, but these will be his first talks in that capacity with King Abdullah.
A senior administration official traveling with Kerry says the United States completely agrees with Saudi Arabia about countering Iran’s support for groups that Washington and Riyadh consider to be terrorist organizations.
The senior official says the Obama administration supports Saudi Arabia’s “much needed” financial assistance to Egypt, but believes it would be appropriate to link that assistance in some way to economic reforms because progress toward a democratic transition in Egypt is tied to its overall economic success.