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Obama and Saudi King Sidestep Dispute Over Iran Nuclear Deal

Middle East
Video The president and King Salman of Saudi Arabia met at the White House to discuss topics including the Iran nuclear deal and the conflict in Syria.
By PETER BAKER
September 4, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia met at the White House on Friday in hopes of moving past their differences four months after the king refused the president’s invitation to visit amid concerns over American negotiations with Iran.

During brief public remarks at the beginning of their meetings, neither of the leaders directly addressed the disagreement that has driven a wedge between their countries, namely the deal to lift sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Instead, they stressed a long history of cooperation and friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

“We’ll discuss the importance of effectively implementing the deal to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon while counteracting its destabilizing activities in the region,” Mr. Obama told reporters in his only reference to the Iran agreement. King Salman made no mention of Iran at all in his response.

Saudi leaders have grudgingly come to accept the Iran agreement despite deep reservations about its effectiveness, a recognition on their part that they cannot stop the deal from going forward. While Congress may vote to reject the agreement, Mr. Obama has corralled enough Democratic votes to sustain a veto of a Republican resolution of disapproval.

Interactive Feature | The Iran Deal in 200 Words A short overview of important highlights from the Iran nuclear deal.

The king’s decision to come to Washington was a signal that the Saudis are now focused on making the best of the situation. The Pentagon is finalizing a $1 billion arms agreement with Saudi Arabia that will provide weapons for its war effort against the Islamic State and Yemen, part of an Obama administration strategy of tamping down opposition by Persian Gulf states to the Iran deal through increased security cooperation.

Saudi Arabia had stiffed Mr. Obama when he first tried that approach in the spring with a summit meeting at Camp David of the leaders of six gulf states. The White House initially announced that King Salman would attend, only to be caught off guard when Saudi officials said that he would instead send two top princes to represent him. At the time, some administration officials denied that it was a snub, suggesting that the trip might be too arduous for the 79-year-old monarch.

King Salman seemed unrestrained by physical limits four months later, however, as he and Mr. Obama resolved to move ahead on a variety of issues, including counterterrorism, business and energy.

“Once again, Mr. President, I’m happy to come to a friendly country to meet a friend, and we want to work together for world peace,” the king said in the Oval Office. “Our region must achieve stability, which is essential for the prosperity of its people and in our country thank God we are prosperous, but we want prosperity for the entire region. And we are willing to cooperate with you in order to achieve that.”

During their public remarks, Mr. Obama touched only briefly on the other difficult issues confronting the two, including the war in Yemen, where American officials have expressed concern that Saudi military actions have caused civilian casualties, and in Syria, where the two sides cooperate against the Islamic State but have deep disagreements about how to handle the broader civil war.

“This is obviously a challenging time in world affairs, particularly in the Middle East,” Mr. Obama said. “So we expect this to be a substantive conversation across a wide range of issues.”

He added: “We share a concern about Yemen and the need to restore a functioning government that is inclusive and that can relieve the humanitarian situation there. We share concerns about the crisis in Syria and we’ll have the opportunity to discuss how we can arrive at a political transition process within Syria that can finally end the horrific conflict there.”

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(via NY Times)