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US, Saudis Back Regional Initiatives, Despite Iran

by Pamela Dockins January 23, 2016

Despite claims that a perceived warming of relations between the U.S. and Iran has left U.S. ally Saudi Arabia feeling betrayed, there were no outward indications of a rift, on Saturday, as Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi and other Gulf officials.

The meetings, in Riyadh, have come on the heels of a flurry of Iran-related activity including implementation of the nuclear deal, Tehran's temporary detention and release of 10 U.S. sailors and a negotiated swap that resulted in freedom for four Americans jailed in Iran. A fifth American was released by Tehran around the same time, last week.

In spite of these developments, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, "I don't see a coming together of the United States and Iran."

Jubeir commented as he and Kerry sat side-by-side in a Saturday news conference.

"I don't believe the United States is under any illusion as to what type of government Iran is," he added.

Although implementation has brought Iran relief from nuclear-related sanctions, it is still under U.S. penalties for activities including human rights violations and support of terrorist groups. Also, shortly after implementation of the nuclear deal, Washington imposed new sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile program.


But some say the sanctions relief from implementation that, according to U.S. estimates, gives Tehran direct access to at least $55 billion in previously frozen assets, could empower Iran.

"Iranians feel confident that they are being brought back into the international community and that their role in the region and the world will be better recognizes, particularly by the U.S. and Europe, said Atlantic Council Middle East analyst Nabeel Khoury.

"This bothers Saudi Arabia because they don't trust Iran," he said.

In an interview with CNN, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed a similar sentiment.

"We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia can be two important players who can accommodate each other," in the region, he said.

But he added, "Unfortunately, the Saudis have had the illusion that backed by their Western allies, they could push Iran out of the equation in the region."

Tensions heightened between Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni country in the region, and Shi'ite-led Iran following this month's Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi'ite cleric. Protesters responded by storming Saudi missions in Tehran – a move that prompted Saudi Arabia to cut ties with Iran.

Saudi Arabia may have been trying to send out a broader message by executing the cleric, said Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle Eastern studies scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"We [the United States] have made it worse," said Schanzer. "The Saudis feel less secure and now they are taking matters into their own hands," he said.

In a Friday briefing, a senior State Department official said the U.S. understands "the Saudi anger over the attack on their facilities in Iran."

Regional tensions

The official said lessening tensions is an important objective for the U.S. and for the region.

There has been ongoing concern that tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia could hamper progress on other regional issues of concern for the U.S., such as the crisis in Syria.

The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran are part of the International Syria Support Group, which is backing next week's planned launch of talks on a political transition in Syria.

In his Saturday news conference with the Saudi foreign minister, Kerry indicated there was a way forward for the U.S. and its Gulf allies, in spite of lingering concerns about Iran.

The relationship between the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, is built on "mutual interest," and "mutual defense," said Kerry.

He added, there was "no doubt" among GGC countries that the U.S. would "stand with them against any external threat and defend them, if necessary."

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