Page last updated at 11:22 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

US and Saudis move closer over Iran

Hillary Clinton and King Abdullah
The US and Saudis are increasingly concerned about Iran's regional ambitions

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Riyadh

It did take 20 minutes of light banter about camels and horses but in the end Hillary Clinton managed to charm Saudi King Abdullah.

The US secretary of state established a rapport with the ruler of a country that will be key in tackling many of Washington's top concerns in the region, from Iran to the Middle East peace process.

The Saudis in turn gave her the royal treatment.

Mrs Clinton was invited to the King's lavish winter retreat in the desert north of Riyadh and, along with her entire delegation, treated to a sumptuous lunch of lobster, three kinds of lamb, pheasant and an endless selection of desserts.

The king and the secretary of state then spent four hours talking behind closed doors.

In the end Mrs Clinton spent almost six hours in Rawdat Khuraim, well over the two-and-a-half hours initially scheduled for the visit.

After all, the Saudis want Washington's help on the exact same issues, though each country has so far viewed the problem from a different perspective and has a different assessment of the political risks involved in dealing with them.

Gap 'closing'

By most accounts, a meeting between President Obama and the Saudi king last June went badly, it was ill-prepared and President Obama's request for a Saudi diplomatic gesture towards Israel, to help kick start peace talks, was rebuffed.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility
Saudis fear that sanctions against Iran may not be enough

In contrast, US officials familiar with the meeting between Mrs Clinton and the king, said they "were very pleased with the content of the conversation on Iran and with the co-operation we have with Saudi Arabia on the issue".

Indeed, nine months later the gap between Washington and Saudi Arabia appears to be closing, as the Gulf countries become increasingly worried about Iran's nuclear intention and eager for more American support.

Meanwhile, Washington is slowly leaving behind the idea of confidence building measures between Israel and the Arabs, an unpopular idea in Saudi Arabia, and is now urging an immediate resumption of talks on final status negotiations.

So, the Saudis seemed keen to be charmed.

'Military dictatorship'

But beyond the chit-chat, the four hour talks centred on key issues with Iran topping the agenda.

Washington has been pushing for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran and has hardened its tone against Tehran.

Hillary Clinton said the country was moving towards a military dictatorship because the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council was slowly supplanting the government.

In a press conference before Mrs Clinton flew from Riyadh to Jeddah, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said it was still unclear whether the takeover was permanent but that if Mrs Clinton's reading was accurate, "we're in for a tough time".

Underlining how concerned Iran's neighbours are about its nuclear intentions, the Saudi foreign minister made a somewhat surprising statement saying that sanctions were not a quick enough solution to the pressing threat posed by Iran.

Prince al-Faisal did not openly back Washington's call for sanctions, but neither did he express opposition to it.

He made it clear that the kingdom wanted a more immediate resolution to the problem rather than a gradual one.

While the Saudi foreign minister did not detail his vision for a quick solution in public, it is likely that options were discussed behind closed doors in the meeting between Hillary Clinton and King Abdullah.

Veiled warning

Some regional experts believe that neither sanctions nor engagement will work with Iran and have suggested a multi-pronged approach, involving intense economic pressure on Iran from its neighbours.

This would require close co-ordination between the Gulf Co-operation Council as well as Iraq.

The Saudi foreign minister also said that China, a top importer of Saudi oil, did not need to be prodded by the kingdom to know what it ought to do about sanctions against Iran.

He said Beijing was a "responsible world power".

Saudi officials are known for using very careful, often opaque, diplomatic language.

It sounded as though he was saying that Saudi Arabia would not use oil as an incentive to prod China to back UN sanctions against Iran.

But the statement could also be read as a veiled warning: if China does not back UN sanctions, as was expected from a "responsible world power", it risked upsetting its top oil supplier.

Iran ranks third as a provider of crude oil for China.

On Monday, Mrs Clinton suggested that there was movement on the China front.

"I think the weight is maybe beginning to move toward" China supporting sanctions, she said, because they don't want "to either be isolated or inadvertently contributing to instability that would undermine their economic interests."

Mrs Clinton's visit to the Gulf appears to be have gone well, though in the end it's unclear whether she has any concrete promises from the Saudis.

They will expect much in return from Washington and the Obama administration has not fared well when it comes to delivering in the Middle East so far.

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