US Signals Caution to Saudis on Iran

US Signals Caution to Saudis on IranUS Signals Caution to Saudis on Iran

Despite US President Donald Trump's full-throated support for Saudi Arabia, the United States appears to be signaling a desire for Riyadh to take a more cautious approach in its regional rivalry with Iran, experts told Reuters.

The Trump administration, which shares Saudi Arabia's view of Iran as a regional threat, has strongly backed the kingdom in the wake of an intercepted missile attack from Iran-aligned Houthi forces in Yemeni territory that demonstrated an ability to strike the Saudi capital.

Trump has cultivated much warmer ties with the Saudis after their fraught relationship with the previous US administration, as he made Riyadh his first stop on his maiden international trip and vowed to take strong action to confront Iran.

Nevertheless, Washington, which has US forces in Syria and Iraq, is telegraphing a more tempered stance toward the confrontation in a region beset with turmoil.

On Thursday, the US State Department called for "unimpeded access" for humanitarian aid to Yemen, after Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on the country to stem the alleged flow of arms to Houthi fighters.

A day later, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear he still recognized Saad al-Hariri as Lebanon's prime minister who unexpectedly announced his resignation on Nov. 4 from Riyadh.

In announcing his decision on television, Hariri said he feared assassination and accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world, thrusting Lebanon into the front line of the competition between Tehran and Riyadh.

Two US officials said the Saudis, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had "encouraged" Hariri to leave office and Lebanese officials say he is being held in Saudi Arabia. Hariri has not commented publicly on whether he is free to come and go as he pleases.

In a statement on Saturday, the White House said it "rejects any efforts by militias within Lebanon or by any foreign forces to threaten Lebanon's stability ... or use Lebanon as a base from which to threaten others in the region."

  Differing Views on Lebanon

When asked to comment on whether the United States was pushing for a more cautious Saudi response, both the White House and State Department referred to Saturday's statement on Lebanon.

The US secretary of state was "not going along with the Saudi position in describing the Lebanese state as under capture by Hezbollah", said Paul Salem, the senior vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. "That's significant."

Tillerson was also "signaling to the Israelis ... that now is not the time to go after Lebanon", said Salem, referring to longstanding Israeli concerns about Hezbollah's growing military prowess.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he believed the Trump administration was still seeking to help the Saudis advance their interests against Iran without destabilizing the region.

"This is a delicate balancing act. It involves supporting allies in a policy that the administration agrees with, while trying to mitigate aspects of it that it [sees as] overstated," Takeyh said.

Tillerson's statement also urged "all parties both within Lebanon and outside" to respect Lebanon's independence and said there was no role for any foreign forces.

The United States regularly criticizes Iran and Hezbollah for their role in Lebanon. Tillerson's backing of Hariri and the Lebanese government contrasted sharply with the approach taken by Saudi Arabia, which has lumped Lebanon with Hezbollah as parties hostile to it.

"I see Rex Tillerson as being an old-fashioned American diplomat and old-fashioned American diplomacy in the Middle East is all about stability," said F. Gregory Gause, chairman of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University.

"I'm not entirely sure that that is the position of the chief executive of the United States," Gause added.


Add new comment

Read our comment policy before posting your viewpoints