Iran Top Issue in Obama Visit to Saudi Arabia

March 29, 2014

     On March 28, President Barack Obama met with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah al Saud near Riyadh to discuss the Iranian nuclear talks and Syrian crisis. Obama assured the king that Washington is committed to preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capability. The following are excerpts from a press briefing by senior White House officials on the bilateral meeting.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was a good opportunity for the President, on Iran, to underscore what we are doing in the nuclear negotiations, what our objectives are, and to make clear to the King -- and via the King, Saudi Arabia -- that we're determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; that we've gone into the talks eyes wide open, but we believe that this is a common interest in stopping proliferation to Iran; that the arrangements in place now have halted Iran’s nuclear program and set it back in important respects, which gives us time to negotiate in the P5-plus-1 to reach a comprehensive solution that meets the criteria that I mentioned, of stopping Iran from having a weapon, and ensuring that its program is exclusively peaceful; and again, to sit down with the King and assure him that that's the objective, that we won't accept a bad deal; and that the focus on the nuclear issue doesn’t mean we are not concerned about or very much focused on Iran’s other destabilizing activities in the region, which the Saudis and the King are also concerned about.  Iran’s meddling in other countries in the region, its support for terrorism -- these are things that we’ve made clear across the board that will not go away, but we believe, and the President was able to explain that dealing with the nuclear issue doesn’t mean not focus on those things, and stopping Iran from a nuclear weapon itself will curb Iran’s ability to continue its destabilizing activities throughout the region.
Now, one of the destabilizing activities Iran is undertaking in the region, we believe, is its support for the Assad regime in Syria, which is another big topic between the two leaders.  As I think you all know, King Abdullah feels very passionately about Syria and the tragic humanitarian situation there, as obviously does President Obama -- and once again, an opportunity to sit down face-to-face.  We’ve actually cooperated well and extensively with the Saudis on the question of Syria…
Question:  On Iran, what did the King -- did the King seem convinced of what the President said about Iran -- the nuclear deal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Look, I don’t want to speak for the King or his reaction.  He listened very carefully.  And like I said, what was important about this meeting is obviously we’ve explained to the Saudis, they know what our position is, but there’s nothing like the person who’s responsible for driving and making this policy to come down and sit face-to-face with the King and patiently and carefully walk him through what we’re doing and what the objective is.
     And I think -- again, I can’t speak for the King’s -- what he took away or his response.  But I think it was important to have the chance to look him in the eyes and explain how determined the President is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and how determined the President is to continue to counter Iran’s other destabilizing activities, and that the President and the United States are going into this eyes wide open, there’s no naïveté…
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On Iran, as we’ve said with Israel, for instance, we understand that given the history of the Saudis’ relation with Iran and their proximity to Iran, that they’re going to be skeptical; that we basically price into the Iranian nuclear negotiations that our Gulf partners are going to be watching with a skeptical eye to make sure that we are getting a good deal.  And that’s appropriate given the fact that a lot of the destabilizing activity that Iran undertakes is right in their neighborhood -- their support for the Houthis in Yemen; some of their destabilizing activities in the Gulf, as well as, of course, their support for Hezbollah.
So the point the President has made repeatedly is that we are interested in getting a deal that meets our concerns, that assures that the program -- the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful.  That, ultimately, would be in the interest of Saudi Arabia and the region, because Iran would be a far more destabilizing force if they had a nuclear weapon.  So ultimately, those talks we believe could yield an outcome that is in service of regional security.  But if we can’t get the outcome we want, the President has made very clear that we’re not going to take a bad deal either…
I think part of the concern has been that the nuclear negotiations represent a broader rapprochement between the United States and the West and Iran.  But the fact of the matter is that’s not going to be the case if we don’t see changes from Iran and these other areas. 
     For instance, all of our sanctions on terrorism-related issues are fully in place with respect to Iran.  In terms of what we do, we’re working against the Assad regime in Syria.  Together with our Gulf partners we are working to support the Yemeni government.  And we’ve worked to at times expose Iranian support as a means of disrupting the types of support that they could provide, whether it’s to the Houthis or other groups around the region. 
We work with a lot of countries in trying to counter Hezbollah’s activities, targeting their financing, intelligence cooperation, strengthening the Lebanese Armed Forces.  So I think on the Hezbollah side of the equation, we have a lot of actions all over the world that are frankly geared at cracking down on Hezbollah’s activities. 
So, again, I think across the board we have a very aggressive set of measures that we’re using to counter Iran’s support for terrorism, to expose and counter its efforts to destabilize countries in the region.  And those are going to be ongoing, and those also depend on the cooperation we have with our partners here.
But at the end of the day, if we can get a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue that assures that Iran’s program is peaceful, that’s going to be a good thing.  A nuclear-armed Iran would be far more dangerous in terms of its ability to destabilize the region, to leverage its support for terrorism.  So that’s why we’re so invested in that project.  And I think our view is at the end of the day, if we can achieve that diplomatic resolution that will be good for the security of the Gulf and of the region.  If the Iranians make further changes in their policies as it relates to these other issues, then there may be the prospect of looking at a broader conversation.  But they’re not doing that.

     As near as we can tell, their actions in terms of their regional behavior is the same today as it was before these nuclear talks began.  And our efforts to counter those Iranian actions are the same today as they were before the nuclear talks began.  And so that’s a steady state in an issue where I think we have more convergence with the Saudis as a matter of policy than divergence. 

Click here for the full briefing.