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US, RIYADH STRATEGICALLY ALIGNED

US President Barack Obama gets guard of honour and (bottom) in
discussion with King Abdullah.

No bad deal with Iran, Obama assures Saudi King

Riyadh, March 29, 2014

US President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah discussed "tactical differences" in their approach to some issues during a meeting in Riyadh on Friday, but agreed both sides remain strategically aligned, a senior US official said.

Flying by helicopter to the king's desert camp, Obama underscored the importance of Washington's relationship with the world's largest oil exporter in a two-hour meeting that focused on the Middle East.

Obama assured Abdullah that the United States would not accept a bad nuclear deal with Iran, the official said, adding that Washington remained concerned about providing some shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels.

In the runup to his visit to the kingdom, officials had said Obama would aim to persuade the monarch that Saudi concerns that Washington was slowly disengaging from the Middle East and no longer listening to its old ally were unfounded.

Last year senior Saudi officials warned of a "major shift" away from Washington after bitter disagreements about its response to the "Arab Spring" uprisings, and policy towards Iran and Syria, where Riyadh wants more American support for rebels.

The official said the two leaders had spoken frankly about a number of issues and "what might be or might have been tactical differences or differences in approaching some of these issues, but President Obama made very clear he believes our strategic interests remain very much aligned," the official said.

The official added that Obama had assured the king that "we won't accept a bad deal" on Iran and that the king "listened very carefully" to what Obama said. The official said it was important for Obama to come and explain the US position face-to-face with the king.

The king and Obama, there with US Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, made no public statements.

But in the run up to the visit, officials had said Obama would aim to persuade the monarch that Saudi concerns that Washington was slowly disengaging from the Middle East and no longer listening to its old ally were unfounded especially on the Syria issue.

Overwhelmingly Saudi Arabia is backing the insurgents in their battle to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Riyadh's rival, Shi'ite power Iran.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said coordination with the kingdom on Syria policy, particularly regarding providing assistance to the Syrian rebels, had improved.

"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 (autumn) when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy," he told reporters on Air Force One.

Rhodes added that one of the main topics Obama and Abdullah would discuss would be how to empower the moderate opposition to counter Assad and isolate extremist groups.

One area where Riyadh has long differed from Washington is in Obama's reluctance to supply rebels with surface-to-air missiles, sometimes known as MANPADS.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that the US was ready to increase covert aid to Syrian rebels under a new plan which included training efforts by the CIA, and was considering supplying MANPADS.

The White House has not closed the door to the possibility of such a move in the future, but an official said its position had not changed.

Obama has shown himself wary of being drawn into another conflict in the Muslim world after working hard to end or reduce American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, supplies less petroleum to the US than in the past, safeguarding its energy output remains important to Washington, as does its cooperation in combating al Qaeda.

The Saudis also want more reassurance on American intentions regarding talks over Iran's nuclear programme, which might eventually lead to a deal that ends sanctions on Tehran in exchange for concessions on its atomic facilities.

Riyadh fears such a deal could come at the expense of Sunni Arabs in the Middle East, some of whom fear that Shi'ite Iran will take advantage of any reduction in international pressure to spread its influence by supporting co-religionists.

An editorial in the semi-official al-Riyadh newspaper on Friday said Obama did not know Iran as well as the Saudis, and could not "convince us that Iran will be peaceful".

"Our security comes first and no one can argue with us about it," it concluded.

Rhodes said Washington would not ignore Saudi concerns about Iranian action in the Middle East while it pursued a deal on Tehran's nuclear programme.

"We'll be making clear that even as we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behaviour in the region, its support for Assad, its support for Hezbollah, its destabilising actions in Yemen and the Gulf, that those concerns remain constant," he said.

The Saudi king was accompanied in the talks by Crown Prince Salman, Prince Muqrin, who was named second-in-line to rule on Thursday, and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Powerful Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who recently met top US officials in Washington to discuss Syria, was not present according to a list of participants supplied by US officials.-Reuters




Tags: Iran | Obama | Saudi King |

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