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Obama in Saudi Arabia for talks overshadowed by mistrust

AFP-JIJI

US President Barack Obama sought Friday to allay Riyadh’s criticism of his policies on Syria and Iran, telling the Saudi king their two countries remain in lockstep on their strategic interests.

He also assured King Abdullah that the U.S. “won’t accept a bad deal” with Iran, as global powers negotiate a treaty reining in Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.

“The president underscored how much he values this strategic relationship,” a senior U.S. official said, after Obama met for some two hours with the king on a royal estate outside Riyadh.

In an interview aired on U.S. television later Friday, Obama defended his administration’s decision not to use military force in Syria, saying that the United States has its limits.

The U.S. leader’s comments came in an interview taped ahead of his visit to Saudi Arabia, which was angered by his eleventh-hour decision last year to pull back from strikes against the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons in the country’s civil war.

“It is, I think, a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship we’ve seen in Syria,” Obama told broadcaster CBS in Rome.

“It’s not that it’s not worth it,” he added. “It’s that after a decade of war, the United States has limits.

“And it’s not clear whether the outcome, in fact, would have turned out significantly better,” he added.

Now in its fourth year, the bloody civil war has claimed more than 146,000 lives and displaced many others, causing a refugee crisis in the region.

Earlier, White House officials said part of the discussions would focus on ways to “empower” Syria’s moderate opposition.

But officials shot down as untrue reports that the U.S. administration was planning to give Riyadh a green light to ship man-portable air-defense weapons, known as MANPADs, to the beleaguered moderate Syrian opposition.

“This was not a trip or a meeting designed to coordinate detailed questions or types of assistance to Syrians,” added the U.S. official added, who asked not to be named.

Riyadh also has strong reservations about revived efforts by Washington and other major world powers to negotiate with Iran.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, long wary of Shiite Iran’s regional ambitions, views a November deal between world powers and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear program as a risky venture that could embolden Tehran.

The interim agreement curbs Iran’s controversial nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief, and is aimed at buying time to negotiate a comprehensive accord.

Obama made clear to the king the U.S. was “determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, that we’ve gone into the talks eyes wide open, but that we believe this is a common interest in stopping proliferation to Iran,” the U.S. official told reporters.

He also stressed that Washington remained “very much focused on Iran’s other destabilizing activities in the region.”

Iranian-Saudi rivalry crystallized with the Syrian conflict: Tehran backs Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, while several Gulf Cooperation Council states support the opposition rebels.

Obama’s stand on events reshaping the region “have strained relations, but without causing a complete break,” said Anwar Eshki, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies.

U.S. security and energy specialist professor Paul Sullivan said Obama meeting King Abdullah could “help clear the air on some misunderstandings.”

“However, I would be quite surprised if there were any major policy changes during this visit. This is also partly a reassurance visit,” he added.

The two leaders were also expected to discuss Egypt, another bone of contention since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, who was a staunch U.S. and Saudi ally.

The kingdom was angered by the partial freezing of U.S. aid to Egypt after the army toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last July — a move hailed by Riyadh.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials said Obama did not raise the issue of human rights with the king despite appeals from U.S. lawmakers and rights groups.

Dozens of U.S. lawmakers had urged Obama to publicly address Saudi Arabia’s “systematic human rights violations” and efforts by women activists to challenge its ban on female drivers.

“We do have a lot of significant concerns about the human rights situation” in Saudi Arabia, the second administration official said, mentioning in particular “women’s freedoms.”

Saudi activists have urged women to defy the driving ban and get behind the wheel on Saturday, the second day of Obama’s visit.