RIYADH (Reuters) – New U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored the need for unity in the Gulf during a brief visit to the Saudi capital on Sunday as Washington aims to muster support among allies for new sanctions against Iran.
Pompeo reassured Saudi Arabia that the United States would abandon the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, reached under President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, unless there is an agreement in talks with European partners to improve it to make sure the Islamic Republic never possesses a nuclear weapons.
“Iran destabilizes this entire region,” Pompeo said in a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. “It supports proxy militias and terrorist groups. It is an arms dealer to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It supports the murderous Assad regime (in Syria) as well.”
Pompeo also addressed the rift between some Gulf countries and Qatar: “Gulf unity is necessary and we need to achieve it.”
Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, cut off travel and trade ties with Qatar last June, accusing it of supporting terrorism and arch-rival Iran on the other side of the Gulf.
Doha has denied the accusations and has said its three fellow Gulf countries aim to curtail its sovereignty. For its part, Iran denies supporting terrorism or having sought to develop nuclear weapons.
Pompeo met briefly with Saudi King Salman on Sunday before heading directly to Jerusalem for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy.
IRANIAN BEHAVIOR IN FOCUS
The 15-minute encounter with the king took place at Irqah Palace, one of his residences. The 82-year-old monarch stood as Pompeo entered the room and shook hands with his delegation.
Senior State Department officials had said Pompeo would discuss Iran’s behavior in the region and call for sanctions to curb the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program during his discussions with Saudi leaders.
During Sunday’s press conference, Jubeir said, “Iran should be dealt with by imposing further sanctions for its violations of international laws relating to ballistic missiles.”
Yemen’s Houthi movement has fired over 100 missiles into Saudi Arabia, the latest salvo killing a man in the southern Saudi province of Jizan on Saturday.
The attacks have fueled accusations by the United States and the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 that Iran is providing the missiles to its Houthi allies. The Islamic Republic denies this.
Senior State Department officials also said Pompeo would urge Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies to resolve their nearly year-long dispute with Qatar.
The United States, which has military bases in both Qatar and some of the countries lined up against it, is trying to mediate the feud. Trump publicly sided with the Saudis and Emiratis early in the crisis but is now pushing for a resolution to restore Gulf unity and maintain a united front against Iran.
One U.S. official said Washington feared the rift risked undermining efforts to contain Iranian influence and crush Islamist militants.
“Look, if we are going to be serious about mitigating and containing the threat that Iran poses with a greater degree of unity of effort, unity of purpose, (that is all) the better … That is a message that isn’t new but it has increased vigor.”
Just hours after being confirmed as Trump’s top diplomat, Pompeo set off on a whirlwind trip to NATO in Brussels and Middle East allies.
The trip comes as Trump considers whether or not to abandon by a self-imposed May 12 deadline the Iran nuclear deal he sees as deeply flawed. He has called on Gulf allies to contribute funding and troops to stabilize areas in Iraq and Syria where a U.S.-led coalition has largely defeated Islamic State jihadists.
On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani poured scorn on U.S. and European discussions over changes to the nuclear accord and dismissed Trump as a “tradesman” who lacked the qualifications to deal with a complex international pact.
The 2015 agreement limited Iran’s enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel to help ensure it could not be turned to developing bomb material, and Tehran secured a removal of most international sanctions in return.
Iran has repeatedly said its ballistic missile program has nothing to do with its nuclear work and is non-negotiable.
Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France, the other signatories to the 2015 nuclear pact, see it as the best way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear bomb capability.
Trump sees three defects in the deal: a failure to address Iranian ballistic missiles; the terms under which U.N. inspectors can visit allegedly suspect Iranian nuclear sites; and “sunset” clauses under which key limits on the Iranian nuclear program start to expire after 10 years.
Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Mark Heinrich