WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is greeting King Salman of Saudi Arabia with assurances that the Iran nuclear deal comes with the necessary resources to help check the Islamic Republic's regional ambitions.
The Saudi king is making his first visit to the White House since ascending the throne in January and Friday's talks with President Barack Obama come at an important moment. Congress will soon take up a resolution of disapproval of the nuclear agreement, though Senate Democrats have gathered enough votes to prevent to prevent the Republican-led measure's success.
The accord will provide Iran hundreds of billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions in exchange for a decade of constraints on the country's nuclear program. Saudi officials have cautiously supported the deal, but are worried about enforcement and whether an Iranian government flush with cash will wreak havoc throughout the Middle East.
Four years after Obama demanded that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down, he remains in power through significant help from Iran. The U.S. has largely abandoned efforts to uproot the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah from its dominant position in Lebanon. Washington has struggled to limit Tehran's influence in Shiite-dominated Iraq. And U.S. support for a Saudi-led military intervention has done little to reverse the Iranian-assisted Houthis' hold over much of Yemen.
Salman's visit is pushing the administration to publicly address these concerns before Congress votes. To that end, Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier this week that the U.S was working with its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf on a ballistic missile defense system, special operations training and large-scale military exercises.
Obama will want to assure the king he's well aware of the dangers Iran poses, but White House officials have suggested the threat is being overstated.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said Iran is in such a deep economic hole that its government is likely to use much of its initial windfall to boost the economy. The defense budget of U.S. allies in the Gulf is eight times that of Iran and that no amount of sanctions relief could close that gap, he said.
"We need to ensure that we're doing everything we can to counter Iran's destabilizing activities in the region," Rhodes said during a conference call with reporters previewing the king's visit.
Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said Obama's was skeptical about Salman's interest in security promises. Since Obama has a little more than a year left in office, he said, those "have a very short life."
Salman, Abrams said, "wants to tell the president that Iran is a great danger and an enemy."
"The Saudis think we view Iran as a possible partner," he added. "They don't."
Rhodes said the meeting would likely not lead to announcements major weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Rather, the focus is on "more nimble 21st-century capabilities in areas like cyber and maritime and special forces."
The administration also will express concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen, where the Saudis are conducting airstrikes to support the government in a civil war against the Houthi rebels, officials said. The United Nations says 2,100 civilians have died in the conflict.
Jeff Prescott, a senior director in the president's National Security Council, said the U.S. wants all sides to allow for unfettered humanitarian access throughout Yemen and to avoid damaging infrastructure needed for assistance.