RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — US Defense Secretary James Mattis considers Iran a troublemaker that is exporting terrorism and whose influence is prolonging the bloody war in Yemen, he told reporters April 19 after meeting in Riyadh with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman.
“Everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran,” he told reporters.
US President Donald Trump’s administration seeks to repair US-Saudi ties, which suffered under former President Barack Obama because of divergent views on how to settle the region’s crises, including those posed by Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Saudi Arabia opposed the nuclear arms deal the United States and five other world powers struck with Iran, and a Saudi-led alliance supporting Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In a March 2016 article titled "No, Mr. Obama," Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who was the head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States from 2005 to 2007, accused Obama of turning against the kingdom.
Zuheir Harithi, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, told Al-Monitor that US policy in the past three years has been vague and confusing for the allies, including Saudi Arabia. He added that policies made during the Obama era need to be reconsidered in a way amenable to Gulf countries. He confirmed that there are positive signs indicating that Trump is serious in dealing with regional issues. Harithi anticipates, however, that US-Saudi ties will be pragmatic and based on the interests of both sides.
He pointed out that during recent meetings, Saudi and US officials spoke frankly but with fairness and respect. He believes the United States now realizes the magnitude of the threats facing the region because of the neglect of the previous administration, which Harithi said handed Syria over to the Russians. He pointed specifically to Obama's failure to follow through on his warning of a military move against the Syrian regime if President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
According to Harithi, Trump needs to revise the Obama administration's policy of limiting its dealings with Iran to the nuclear agenda and overlooking its ties to al-Qaeda, the Houthis and Hezbollah. He affirmed that the Obama policy disappointed Saudi Arabia, but at the same time it prompted the latter to rely on itself, which resulted in a military operation against the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen.
Saudi political expert Asaad Shamlan told Al-Monitor that the Trump administration seems inclined toward a confrontation with Iran, and this inclination needs to be translated into an effective policy to counter Iranian activity in the region. He explained that the necessary political support seems available in this regard, but so far there have been no signs that Trump will follow through. Shamlan added that US policy has been to weaken Iran while preserving the nuclear deal in a way to achieve US strategic interests.
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump blasted the nuclear deal, but he did not provide an alternative. Though the administration recently announced it will review the deal, it also said Iran is in compliance and the United States will continue to honor the pact.
According to Shamlan, the nuclear agreement is not expected to be annulled, because doing so would weaken US credibility. He also noted that Saudi Arabia didn't object to the pact at the time, as the idea of Iran as a non-nuclear weapon state serves the region's interests. The problem, Shamlan noted, is that so far the deal has failed to improve Iran's conduct.
Shamlan said the Obama administration hoped the nuclear deal would, in the long run, improve Iran's openness to the global economy and lay the foundations for a political shift in Iran. Shamlan noted, however, that the proposition is a long shot.
He added that remarks made by the Saudi defense minister to the Washington Post in April indicate Saudi Arabia is optimistic about the Trump administration and believes Trump is taking an interest in regional issues, although it is too early to say there's been a qualitative change. Shamlan believes US officials when they say the recent US military strike against Syria was retaliatory and wasn't launched to make a change in the battle's balance.
Saudi journalist Bandar Al Shihri told Al-Monitor that regardless of US support, Saudi Arabia has taken measures to promote its national security and counter Iranian plans that destabilize the region. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is one of those measures, in which Saudi Arabia took action before a pro-Iran Houthi regime could be established on its southern border. Also, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism was established in 2015 as a regional, self-sufficient force that doesn't rely on other allies, including the United States, he said.
The Trump administration has not yet taken tangible measures to counter Iran's influence in Iraq, Syria or Yemen, which concerns Saudi officials. This prompted, at least in part, the Saudi monarch to dismiss on April 22 Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki from the post of Saudi ambassador to the United States. Instead, the king's son Khaled bin Salman was appointed to the post. By making such a move, Saudi Arabia is racing to revive US-Saudi ties and positioning itself to counter the influence of Iran and other countries in the region that pose a threat to US interests.