Saudis Panic Over Trump’s Talk of Discussions w/Iranian President Rouhani

A younger brother of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in Washington this week, with President Donald Trump’s evolving policy toward Iran and Yemen expected to be on the agenda for talks with the administration.

Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman’s visit comes days after Trump signaled new openness to potential talks with Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival, Iran, and a report that the U.S. is looking to enter talks with Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the festering war in Yemen.

The Saudi Press Agency said Prince Khalid “will meet a number of officials to discuss bilateral relations and issues of common concern that support the security and stability of the region,” without providing specifics on meetings planned with administration officials.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will meet with the prince on Wednesday afternoon, according to the State Department.

While the trip may have been planned well in advance, analysts said there’s little doubt about what the agenda will be now.

“Behind closed doors, there will be concern over Trump’s strategy of potentially meeting with Rouhani and the way forward,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group, referring to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. “There is going to be a lot of questions about where U.S. policy is on that level.”

Speaking at the conclusion of the Group of Seven summit in France on Monday, Trump said he was willing to meet Rouhani under the right conditions, though he gave few details. While Rouhani pushed back, saying he wasn’t interesting in a photo-op with Trump, the American president’s offer was reminiscent of his early diplomacy with North Korea, which has resulted in three meetings with Kim Jong Un.

A Rouhani-Trump meeting would break with more than four decades of U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic, following the country’s 1978 revolution and subsequent U.S. hostage crisis. It would also frustrate key American allies in the Middle East, including both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Citing sources it didn’t identify, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the U.S. administration is also preparing to initiate direct talks with Yemen’s Houthis, who have been targeted by a Saudi-led coalition that has shown signs of fraying. The Saudi intervention, an early move by Prince Mohammed, has pitted the Arab world’s wealthiest nation against its poorest and generated widespread charges of human rights abuses.

“I have no doubt that the Saudis are frustrated” about U.S. signals regarding Mideast policy, Ibrahim Fraihat, a conflict resolution professor with the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, said in response to questions.

While Trump has made Saudi Arabia the centerpiece of his Middle East strategy since taking office in 2017, the kingdom’s reputation in Washington has been battered by the war in Yemen, the detention of female activists and the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. Congress has condemned the Saudis over the Khashoggi episode and the Yemen military campaign.

“Saudi Arabia is performing a balancing act,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and its Middle East Institute. “Prince Khalid will no doubt be seeking assurances from the Trump administration that it is not weakening its tough stand towards Iran and will not jeopardize Saudi interests.”

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