US PRESIDENT Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in the Oval Office on Tuesday.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
Iran is the central threat to the Middle East and the US must prioritize its alliance with Saudi Arabia, US President Donald Trump indicated on Tuesday.
In a statement focusing on the murder of former Saudi insider and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump said all the facts may never be known about the October killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Nevertheless, Riyadh is America’s ally in the regional struggle against Iran, and the US views that struggle, as well as the interests of its allies – Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – as more important.
The statement comes more than a month after Khashoggi disappeared
and after the killing has become a central scandal in both Washington and the Middle East. Congressional leaders and commentators have pressured Trump to do more, as Turkey, Qatar and some European countries seek to condemn the Saudi role in the murder.
“The world is a dangerous place,” Trump’s statement said. Iran is responsible for “a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy and supporting the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Iran also supports Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad, who Trump claimed had killed “millions of his own citizens.” The actual number is hundreds of thousands, although Assad has driven millions of people from their homes. The American president also pointed to Iran’s killing of Americans and chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” in Tehran, as evidence of why the real problem in the Middle East is Iran, not Saudi Arabia.
The statement also focuses on Riyadh’s role in combating “radical Islamic terrorism” and claims that Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a “member of the Muslim Brotherhood.” This allegation is a new twist for the administration. Khashoggi was a supporter of what he termed “political Islam,” a notion he supported last year in an interview with Al Jazeera. He was sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before it was overthrown in 2013. This was in the context of his support for the Arab spring. But the notion that he was an “enemy of the state” is a new claim and appears to be one the Saudis have made to the US administration.
Trump argues that “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge” of involvement in the killing. The White House point of view is that sanctioning 17 Saudis alleged to be involved in the murder is enough. Trump points out that Riyadh is buying hundreds of billions in US defense equipment, and that given Trump’s “America first” strategy, this is the real US interest.
The statement will be difficult to walk back and appears to be a way for the White House to try to close the door on more than a month of controversy. Trump has spelled out a clear policy, one in which the US alliance with Saudi Arabia and the “important fight against Iran” are the main mission now in the region. Khashoggi is a distraction from that. The statement is so Iran-centric that it mentions Iran more than Khashoggi and almost as much as Saudi Arabia is mentioned.
On Wednesday US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also tweeted against Iran, accusing Tehran of wasting the Iranian people’s money on funding Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorists. He also mentioned new sanctions against a “Russia-Iran oil scheme to prop up Assad.” According to a Maariv report, Russia also recently discussed Iran withdrawing from Syria in exchange for sanctions relief.
At the same time, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is in the US to attend a UN Alliance of Civilizations meeting, and was supposed to meet Pompeo. Turkey will want answers about Trump’s statement.
Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia, and particularly the crown prince, joins other countries that have stood by Riyadh, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.
Now the momentum may move to Congress, where some politicians have asserted that the US should reprimand Saudi Arabia over the killing.
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