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Kerry smooths relationship with Saudis during visit

Published November 4, 2013 6:37 pm

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia • The United States and Saudi Arabia promised each other and the region Monday that they would continue to work together, as Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said "our two friendly countries" are busy dealing jointly with troublesome issues like Syria, Iran and the Mideast peace process.

"There is no room for emotion and anger here, but rather for policies of commonsense and level-headedness," Saud said at a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Nevertheless, Kerry arrived for his visit to Saudi Arabia as differences between the two countries intensified over the Obama administration's policy toward war-torn Syria, its movement toward a possible dialogue with Iran, a regional rival of the Saudis, and its stand on Egypt's military coup.

Saud also expressed his deep frustration with the United Nations, where the Saudis recently rejected a seat on the Security Council because of its inability to achieve progress in Syria or for the Palestinians.

The prince told Kerry: "A true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness, rather than mere courtesy." The pair appeared together not long after Kerry, speaking to U.S. employees at the American Embassy here, hailed the kingdom's role as "the senior player" in the Middle East.

For his part, Kerry said: "this is a deep relationship and it has endured for 75 years and it will endure well into the future."

Kerry in the past has played down the separate stances as differences in "tactics" rather than in the end goal.

"Right now, we have some very important things to talk about to make certain that the Saudi Arabian-U.S. relationship is on track, moving forward and doing the things that we need to accomplish," he told the embassy staffers. Kerry listed a number of key areas, including Syria, Egypt and Iran, but also mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the broader effort to tamp down "nihilism" that leads to extremist violence.

The Saudis have complained that the United States did not follow through on its threat to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad with military strikes for his government's use of chemical weapons. Last month, the Saudis won but turned down an elected seat on the U.N. Security Council, saying the body had proved itself largely meaningless because of its inability over two years to address the crisis in Syria.

"We can't claim to have these high moral values if we do nothing here," Saud said in reference to Syria..

The prince said Monday that "the kingdom's declination of membership in the Security Council in no way shape or form amounts to the withdrawing from the United Nations."

The Saudis also have watched with increasing nervousness as President Barack Obama has approved a cautious opening with their archrival Iran. Saud also lamented the international organization's "failure to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone."

"This time bomb cannot be defused by only dealing with its ramification or maneuvering around it," Saud said.

At the news conference, Kerry said he shared some of Saudi Arabia's frustration with the U.N. Security Council, but said he thought it could get better.

On Iran, he said, "The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. That policy has not changed." And Kerry repeated that the United States will defend its Arab allies, even as new talks with Iran begin this week in Geneva.

Eager to soothe the frustration, Kerry was effusive in his praise of the Saudis earlier, noting a slow, but steady domestic transformation with new emphases on education and health. On the move for Saudi women to be allowed to drive, Kerry was careful not to appear to take sides. Noting that while the United States embraces gender equality, "it is up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure and choices and the timing of whatever events."

Kerry, before meeting with Saudi King Abdullah and Saud, reassured the Saudi leaders that the United States considers Saudi Arabia — and not other powers — to be the major force in the region, Kerry said, even above longtime ally Egypt.

"The Saudis are very, very important to all of these things. The Saudis are really the sort of senior player, if you will, in the Arab world, together with Egypt. Egypt is in more of a transition, so Saudi Arabia's role is that much more important."

Kerry is in Saudi Arabia on the second leg of a 10-day tour through the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. From Riyadh, he will travel to Poland, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco before returning to Washington. —

Outreach to Americans draws big protest in Iran

Tehran, Iran • In Tehran's largest anti-U.S. rally in years, tens of thousands of demonstrators joined Monday in chants of "death to America" as hard-liners directed a major show of resolve against President Hassan Rouhani's outreach to Washington more than a generation after crowds on the same streets stormed and occupied the U.S. Embassy.

Such American-bashing protests occur every year outside the former embassy compound to mark the anniversary of the 1979 takeover following the Islamic Revolution. But the latest demonstration had a dual purpose of sending the boldest warning yet to Rouhani's government over whether it can expand dialogue with the U.S. or offer the concessions needed to possibly settle the nuclear impasse with the West.

"Fighting the global arrogance and hostile policies of America is the symbol of our national solidarity," said Saeed Jalili, who lost to Rouhani in June's election and later was replaced as the country's top nuclear negotiator.

The choice of Jalili as the main speaker to the crowd showed how high the rifts reach in Iran.

Jalili is a leading voice of dissent over Rouhani's overtures to Washington, but he is also a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has given critical support to Rouhani's initiatives. The growing tensions have left Khamenei — the ultimate decision-maker in Iran — in the unusual role of domestic diplomat.

He had stood by Rouhani in apparent hopes that the nuclear talks and outreach can ease Iran's isolation from the West and roll back painful sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program. At the same time, he cannot ignore Rouhani's critics and seeks a middle ground built around his comments that American remains untrustworthy but Iran is strong enough to pursue talks and exchanges.

Another key test comes later this week when nuclear talks resume in Geneva between Iran and six world powers including the U.S. envoys.

The Associated Press