Report

Saudi Arabia’s King Comes Knocking

With the Iran deal done, King Salman is in Washington looking for reassurance — and warships.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud attends the Arab League summit in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on March 28, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud attends the Arab League summit in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on March 28, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia vehemently opposed the Iran nuclear agreement but failed to stop it.

With the Iran accord looking like it will make it through Congress unscathed, Saudi King Salman will use a long-delayed White House visit to push President Barack Obama’s administration to do more than simply promise to help his nation counter Iran’s proxies in the region. Instead, he’ll be asking for missile defense systems, helicopters, and new American warships.

The newly crowned king was supposed to conduct his inaugural trip to the United States in May, but the monarch snubbed an invite to attend a summit of Gulf leaders at Camp David because of Riyadh’s strong disapproval of Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Since then, world powers and Iran clinched a landmark agreement in July that imposes restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions. The Saudis have grudgingly accepted that the deal can’t be stopped and are now working to ensure they can get as much from Washington as possible.

Riyadh may be able to purchase reams of American armaments. A defense analyst at Guggenheim Partners, Roman Schweizer, predicted in a note to clients Wednesday that the visit could pave the way for Saudi Arabia to purchase sophisticated missile defense weaponry and more than $20 billion worth of U.S. frigates, patrol ships, drones, and maritime planes in an overhaul of its navy.

Although Obama administration officials declined to discuss details of the potential arms packages, they said Washington shared Riyadh’s worries about Iran’s “malign” activities in the region, a reference to Tehran’s support for proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere.

“We understand that they have concerns about what Iran could do as their economy may perhaps improve along with sanctions relief,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told reporters Wednesday.

“We’re focused on very concrete capabilities that can enhance our Gulf partners, including Saudi Arabia, in working together and with us to push back against those Iranian activities that concern us,” Rhodes added.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have modern air forces and ground vehicles, but American officials said the United States wanted to help them with “maritime security” and building up their cyber, intelligence, and special forces capabilities. Such moves would be designed to boost the Gulf states’ abilities to counter unconventional threats from Iran’s proxies.

Given Israel’s relatively muted response to growing support in Congress for the Iran deal, Jerusalem also appears ready to turn the page and explore what they could get from Washington, former officials and analysts said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected an earlier White House overture for increased military assistance to Israel because he did not want to be seen as giving any sort of consent to the Iranian deal, senior administration officials said.

But now that Obama has cemented enough support in Congress to prevent opponents from killing the Iranian accord, Israel may yet revisit the issue, officials said.

In a letter Wednesday to members of Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to expand already elaborate U.S. security assistance to Israel and Arab allies in the Persian Gulf as a counterweight to Iran’s “destabilizing activity in the region.”

Kerry wrote that the United States planned to pursue talks on a new 10-year agreement with Israel that would ensure “unprecedented levels of military assistance” for the country. And Washington was also prepared to bolster aid for missile defense and invest in “tunnel detection” technologies for Israel, according to the letter.

And for Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies concerned about Iran, the United States was working “to strengthen our security cooperation with Gulf partners,” Kerry wrote, citing missile defense initiatives and other planned weapons sales.

There were also plans to bolster counterterrorism efforts by “increasing our information sharing” with Gulf allies, he said.

Saudi Arabia’s difficult relations with the U.S. administration date back to Obama’s last-minute decision in 2013 not to take military action against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, even after Damascus crossed a presidential “red line” by using chemical weapons against its own people.

Although Saudi Arabia has joined a U.S.-led coalition carrying out air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, Riyadh and Washington remain divided over which rebels to support in the country.

U.S. officials are wary of some of the Islamist fighters in Syria backed by Riyadh, and the Saudis have grown frustrated at the pace of Washington’s program to arm and train “moderate” rebels, as only about 60 have graduated with disastrous results so far.

In the talks on Friday, the Saudi king “will want to know why the U.S. train and equip mission is going so poorly there” and will likely urge a more robust approach, said Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East analyst at Rand Corp., a U.S.-based research organization.

During his visit, the 79-year-old Saudi king will be accompanied by his son, Mohammed bin Salman, a possible heir to the throne who has been the architect of a major military campaign in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

The presence of the monarch’s son on such a high-profile trip provides the latest signal of his ascendancy in the kingdom and offers U.S. officials a chance to forge a rapport with an increasingly powerful figure in Saudi Arabia, according to Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Foreign Policy contributor.

Although the United States has provided refueling for aircraft and intelligence for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, Obama administration officials have been alarmed at a rising civilian death toll and urged the Saudis to exercise restraint.

“I do think we will see expression of concern [about civilian casualties],” Jeff Prescott, the senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf at the National Security Council, told reporters Wednesday. “We’re deeply concerned about, in particular, the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”

With the Saudi operation succeeding in rolling back Houthi rebels around Aden, U.S. officials will be lobbying the country’s king to wrap up the campaign and seek a negotiated settlement before the conflict escalates, analysts said.

“We’ll try to persuade them that they need to start moving towards an endgame,” said Rand’s Martini. “But it’s not clear they will listen.”

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

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