Obama seeks to reassure Saudis over outreach to Iran regarding nuclear program

— President Obama assured the Saudi king Friday that the United States is not pursuing naively a negotiated resolution to Iran’s nuclear program, and he discussed ways of strengthening Syria’s moderate rebel forces now being battered by extremist groups inside the movement and by the Syrian military.

Obama and King Abdullah, along with senior advisers, spoke for two hours at the royal desert compound outside this desert capital, his last stop in a four-nation visit to Europe and the Middle East.

Senior administration officials said the talks focused on broad strategic issues rather than “technical” ones concerning weapons to Syria’s rebels and the details of a deal with Iran that are at the heart of differences between the long-standing allies.

But the officials also emphasized that the two leaders spoke about increased “coordination” between the United States, Saudi Arabia and European allies to assist moderate rebel forces in Syria, suggesting perhaps a more aggressive push to change the course of the war may be underway.

“Our strategic interests are much more aligned than different, which is not to say that we have been aligned on all these issues,” said a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting. “We are strategic partners with a lot of interests in common.”

The discussions came at a challenging time for U.S.-Saudi relations, defined lately by disagreements over America’s reluctance to arm Syrian rebels and the risks associated with negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

Those differences, which senior administration officials here called “tactical,” appeared to remain after the meeting. But the officials said the visit, designed to reassure Saudi leaders of U.S. intent on various regional issues, succeeded in clarifying U.S. positions for anxious Saudi leaders.

Abdullah, who before the meeting appeared to be assisted by oxygen tubes in his nose, has been uncertain about Obama since the early months of the Arab Spring, particularly his decision late in the Egypt uprising to call for then-President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

That decision upended the historic U.S. policy of supporting autocratic governments favorable to American interests in return for stability in the region. The Saudi royal family wondered whether U.S. support for its rule would continue.

One of the most prominent disagreements is over Obama’s pursuit of talks with Iran to prevent the Shiite Muslim-led government — a rival to Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia for regional power — from building a nuclear weapon through its uranium-enrichment program.

Saudi officials contend that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon and seeks only to buy time and ease sanctions that have strangled the country’s economy. Iran denies that it wants or needs nuclear weapons, which its supreme leader says violate Islam.

Part of the criticism has focused on a perceived American gullibility, a perception Obama sought to counter in his meeting here.

The senior administration official said Obama attempted “to make clear to the king that we are determined to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon, that we have gone into the negotiations with our eyes wide open.”

“The focus on the nuclear issues does not mean we are not concerned about or focused on Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region,” the official said. “There’s no naiveté.”

The official said chief among those activities has been Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Obama and Saudi leaders have called on to resign. Assad belongs to the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, and he has received heavy weapons and forces from Iran to put down the rebellion against him. The Syrian civil war has killed more than 140,000 people.

After deciding against a military strike on Syria last year, Obama has focused on providing humanitarian aid to the millions of Syrian refugees, as rebel forces fracture over differences between Islamist groups and secular ones.

Saudi Arabia has urged Washington to send weapons to vetted rebel groups, but there is an abiding concern within the administration over whether such weapons would fall into the hands of the Islamist forces, perhaps for use later against U.S. or Israeli targets.

Fresher disagreements among Arab states over what groups to arm, particularly within the Gulf Cooperation Council, have complicated coordination efforts, which Obama intended to discuss with the king here.

Saudi leaders have wanted to send Syrian rebels surface-to-air missiles, but the Obama administration has opposed that step and did not alter its position in the meeting here.

“That is a weapons system that could be part of a proliferation that would not serve our interests,” the official said. “Our position has not changed.”

Senior administration officials said Obama did not bring up human rights in the meeting, although the Saudi government’s treatment of women, political dissidents and the country’s Shiite minority have been an enduring American concern.

But Obama is scheduled to meet Saturday morning here with Maha Al Muneef, a Saudi doctor who won the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award this year.

Muneef, a pediatrician, is executive director of the National Family Safety Program, and she works to end domestic violence and child abuse in the kingdom. She was unable for personal reasons to attend the March ceremony in Washington when first lady Michelle Obama honored her and others chosen to receive the award.

Obama will deliver the award to her in their Saturday meeting.

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