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Obama's Visit to Riyadh: Semi-Accord Over Iran and Divergence Over Syria

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The theme of President Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh today is rebuilding trust and mending the American-Saudi relationship with a view to render it strong once again. Papering over the problems that have hit this relationship over the past year will not do if the goal is truly to shore up the shaken foundations of American-Saudi relations. The stroke that hit the American-Saudi relationship has regional roots, addressing which is as inescapable as the need to determine its causes and the course of treatment it requires. But there is also a bilateral root to the decline in the relationship, requiring a diagnosis of the problem and a prescription for the best treatment. The visit itself is proof that the American and Saudi leaderships have taken note of the problem and intend to probe what is on the other side's mind. It is a visit of inquiry as much as it is a visit to test the waters, to see how prepared each side is to adapt to developments in the landscape of Middle Eastern and international relations, or diverge over some of them. Iran, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Palestine will all be present on the agenda of the talks, and so will the issues of security arrangements in the Gulf, combating Islamic extremism, terrorism, nuclear and chemical weapons, and oil and gas. Theatrics will not be enough, while comprehensive accords are not on the table, realistically speaking. But this visit must come out with a draft for an action plan and a roadmap for American-Saudi relations, in both their bilateral and regional aspects. Most likely, the visit will accomplish this, in light of Washington and Riyadh's recognition of the fact that they need one another in more than one issue and arena.

One of the most difficult issues lies in the intersection of the American-Saudi relationship with the American-Iranian relationship, as Barack Obama desires it to be. Overcoming this and other obstacles requires providing a lot of reassurance, starting with briefing Saudi Arabia about the content of the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 countries and Iran, and giving Saudi a seat at the table in any American-Iranian talks over Iran's regional role.

The U.S. president can work on brokering a serious Saudi-Iranian dialogue, especially involving moderate forces within Iran. To be sure, these forces are very keen on having a strong relationship with Washington. According to what they claim, they do not have on their mind regional dominance, nor do they adopt the practices of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and the Qods Force in the Arab countries. While it is difficult for these forces to speak publicly about what the paradigm shift that reassures Riyadh and other Arab capitals would require, Barack Obama can find a back channel for American-Saudi-Iranian dialogue, just like he created a secret Omani channel for American-Iranian talks.

Until then, and since many regional issues overlap with the Saudi-Iranian relationship, it is important for the U.S. president to clarify his policies toward the overlaps and make clear and irreversible decisions.

The U.S. administration is determined to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran by July, out of its concern that it might miss the opportunity to forge accords with the moderate forces led by President Hassan Rohani. The calendar of nuclear negotiations coincides with Damascus's implementation of its pledges to dismantle its arsenal of chemical weapons, and its intention to hold presidential elections that destroy the transitional political process sponsored by the Geneva 2 international talks.

The IRGC will not obstruct the nuclear negotiations, because lifting the sanctions on Iran is linked to concluding those negotiations. The IRGC needs this and needs the money to implement its agenda, especially in Syria. The IRGC insists on not losing the regime in Damascus, given Syria's central location along the Mediterranean and its vital importance as a conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This means that lifting the sanctions on Iran too quickly could directly benefit the hardliners rather than the moderates, as the IRGC happens to be the actual ruler in Tehran.

Saudi officials will query President Obama and his team about how they intend to reconcile engagement of moderate Iran with firmness with hard-line Iran, which clings to its goals of regional hegemony via Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Gulf region through Bahrain and Saudi's Eastern Province.

U.S. officials will insist in front of their Saudi counterparts on the need to give the Iranian moderates a genuine and serious chance because this would be in the interests of everyone. They will stress that there shall be no turning back from engagement and the determination to reach permanent accords over the nuclear issue. They will stress that conciliation is now an American demand and a fixed policy because the U.S. does not want a military confrontation with Iran no matter what happens. The Americans will also affirm that they are not concerned by the Sunni-Shiite conflict, and that it is better for the moderates in Saudi Arabia and Iran to find an alternative to sectarian competition and conflict in their various arenas.

There is a profound difference between the two countries' positions in practice. For instance, Riyadh opposes the Iranian incursion in Iraq, which has reached the extent of driving Iraq out of the Arab house and into the fold of Iranian dictates. But Washington will respond by stressing that it had left Iraq, and does not have influence over its alignment to the Arab nations or to Iran.

Riyadh will insist that the Iranian role in Bahrain is subversive with the intent to instigate sedition if not to absorb Bahrain just like Vladimir Putin absorbed the Crimea. Washington will respond with a language criticizing the conduct of the government in Manama toward the Shiite majority, stressing the need for equal citizenship for all.

Their stance will converge over the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia, rejecting any Iranian infiltration for sabotage under any circumstances. Washington and Riyadh agree on the categorical rejection of any attempts to destabilize the kingdom, whether by Iran or Sunni extremists coming through al-Qaeda and the like.

Their divergence will be over Syria and the extension of its crisis in Lebanon. It is there where there is need for necessary decisions by Washington and Riyadh, and it is there where the Iranian element interferes with the U.S. decision par excellence.

At the level of Lebanon, the Obama administration can give this country its serious attention before it is too late. Fighting the forces of Sunni extremism and terrorist forces like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front must be a firm U.S. and Saudi decision, regardless of the justifications related to responding to Hezbollah's entry as a direct party to the Syrian conflict. Backing the Lebanese army is a joint goal for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and both countries provide support for this army. What is left to do is for Washington to be very firm with Tehran, over the latter's responsibility for maintaining Lebanon's neutrality, and compelling Hezbollah to abide by the policy of self-dissociation and refrain from disrupting the presidential election or manipulate it in favor of Hezbollah rather than the country as a whole.

Regarding Syria, the U.S. president's visit to Saudi Arabia will be a good occasion either for qualitatively new decisions by Washington, or for laying another brick in the reputation the U.S. has gained for backtracking and caving in to one fait accompli after another, and to Iranian and Russian dictates.

U.S. officials suggest that the Obama administration intends to make a shift in its policy on Syria. They say they have a working plan with the moderate opposition, to supply it with weapons to bring about a change in the military equation with the regime forces, and second, to weaken extremist and terrorist forces that have turned up in Syria. They say that they are in the process of supplying logistical, organizational, and strategic support for the moderate Syrian opposition.

Obama's visit to Riyadh will focus on the type of military assistance to be supplied to the Syrian opposition. Indeed, the political solution that enjoys quasi-international consensus is floundering, and everyone knows inwardly that the military course is the only response to the failure of the political process.

The U.S. will not intervene militarily in Syria under any circumstances. This is almost a foregone conclusion. Obama's visit will not relive in detail what happened when the U.S. president got to the eleventh hour and then backed down on the military strike that he pledged to carry out, without telling his partners, the French or the Saudis. Everyone knows that he has contingency plans and that he does not need to send U.S. troops to Syria, but no one trusts his intention to intervene practically and militarily, at least so far.

The talks in Riyadh will tackle questions about what strategy Washington has to counter the Iranian strategy based on holding presidential elections that would ensure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and put an end to the idea of establishing a transitional authority with full powers as stipulated in the Geneva 1 communiqué, the governing framework for the Geneva 2 process.

So far, the response coming from the U.S. officials has been to reject the legitimacy of those elections and their results. In other words, those elections, if they were to be held, will end up delegitimizing Bashar al-Assad.

The Saudi response will be, okay, but this does not work because the elections will torpedo the Geneva negotiations process, while the U.S. president himself had spoken at length about legitimacy and illegitimacy years ago, and yet, Assad remains in his post, as Syria is being ravaged by disaster and tragedy.

The need for a strategy to counter the Syrian election strategy requires serious U.S. and Saudi efforts equally. China, for instance, must be part of that counter strategy, as Chinese divergence with Russia over backing those elections would have an important impact on the diplomatic landscape. Washington and Riyadh can work seriously to isolate Russia in the Syrian arena, by pushing China to make a clear stance regarding what it has committed itself to, instead of hiding behind its solidarity with Russia and giving it the lead on the Syrian question.

This in itself is not enough. For this reason, Obama's visit to Riyadh must culminate with a cohesive plan of action and a clear roadmap on Syria. Part of that counter strategy lies within the U.S. dialogue with Tehran. If the wager primarily is on the moderates, this does not negate the need to demand the latter to intercede with the hardliners benefiting from engagement, to stop disrupting the engagement process and the consequent lifting of the sanctions. There are means and tools available to this end.

The easiest issue during Obama's visit to Riyadh will be Egypt, especially as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is now officially a candidate for the presidency in Egypt. The Obama administration corrected its course in Egypt, and also in its Arab campaign. Saudi Arabia made Egypt a key issue, and acted firmly following a coherent strategy with the United Arab Emirates. Egypt is required to stop its criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, designating the group as a terrorist organization, and issuing death sentences against hundreds of people as it did recently. This requires assertiveness on the part of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, especially that the two countries are now bankrolling the Egyptian state. What is important in the context of American-Egyptian relations is that the Obama administration has made an about-turn on its previous misguided policy in Egypt, and began to understand the background of Saudi and Emirati stances on Egypt. The Obama administration started listening to the importance of firmly seeking to restore the Arab weight into the regional balance of power, even if it does not bless it.

Of course, the visit will address human rights issues and the need to develop these rights in Saudi Arabia, including women's rights and the freedom of expression. Of course as well, Riyadh will hear protests about its refusal to grant a visa to a reporter from the Jerusalem Post, and certainly, the framework agreement for the two-state solution that Washington proposed to the Palestinian and Israeli leaders will be discussed.

Riyadh will confirm its readiness to activate and implement the Arab peace initiative to the fullest extent, especially as the latter reassures Washington and Israel over the willingness of the Arab and Islamic countries to normalize relations with Israel and recognize it if it ends its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Riyadh will extend all support to U.S. efforts, but will not take any responsibility for the failure of the U.S.-backed framework agreement if it fails. After all, this is an American idea, and the responsibility for its failure would rest with Israel much more than it would with the Palestinians.

Second, the talks in Riyadh will address the central issue of strengthening American-Saudi relations. The campaign in the U.S. against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia always summons 9/11 and the perceived Saudi role in the terror attacks that hit the U.S., since 19 Saudis were involved in them. The recent Saudi measures to prosecute Saudi citizens involved in terrorism worldwide have not yet made their way into the U.S. popular and media consciousness. This visit must therefore highlight the importance of those measures.

Finally, Barack Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia will be an opportunity for the U.S. president to restore some of what he personally lost in the ranks of the Arab and perhaps even international public opinion. Today, he is in the process of reformulating his reputation with the Ukrainian issue thanks to his firmness with Russia. Today, he is required to do the same in Syria.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi

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