Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up an eight-nation Middle East tour Monday by defending Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner in isolating Iran, even as he raised concern about Riyadh’s human rights record and said “every single person” responsible for the death of U.S.-based dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi must be held accountable.
The delicate dual messaging marked the end of a weeklong diplomatic trip through the region, where Mr. Pompeo faced a string of tricky geopolitical challenges during stops in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman.
On one hand, the ambitious trip laid the groundwork for far more aggressive U.S. engagement in the region, underscored by the Trump administration’s call for a NATO-style alliance among Arab powers to counter Iran and battle Islamic extremism. But Mr. Pompeo also struggled at nearly every stop to convince allies of Washington’s reliability — let alone its commitment to confront the “common enemy” of Iran — because of unexpected policy moves by President Trump.
The signature moment of the trip was last week at the American University in Cairo, where Mr. Pompeo delivered a major speech that U.S. officials said was designed to reassure Arab powers of America’s staying power as a “liberating force” and a stalwart against militant Iranian proxy activity from Syria to Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The catch, is that “the speech came just weeks after Trump himself had shocked regional leaders by announcing the pullout of U.S. troops from Syria and a plan to deputize Turkey as a stabilizing force there,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Sunni Gulf Arab states are unnerved by the prospect of Turkish incursions into Syria, said Mr. Schanzer, and they have growing concerns that Iran will fill the vacuum left by departing American troops.
“This was an incredibly challenging trip for Pompeo because Trump’s Iran strategy on paper right now is not supported by the president’s recent decisions on the ground,” he said.
“Pompeo did a very good job of trying to thread the needle between the president’s statements and concerns among Arab leaders, but I think it was a near-impossible task,” Mr. Schanzer said. “I think we saw that with some of the body language and some of the muted enthusiasm in the region toward the secretary’s visit.”
There was, for instance, no round of rousing applause during Mr. Pompeo’s speech in Cairo, where he framed the administration’s overall Middle East strategy as a “new beginning” after what he said was an era of “retreat” during the Obama years.
The crowd remained subdued when Mr. Pompeo told them that “misjudgment” under Mr. Obama had resulted in the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as the “failed” 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Mr. Trump defiantly repudiated last year.
In Washington on Monday, National Security Adviser John R. Bolton amplified Mr. Pompeo’s message on Twitter. He posted a message saying that a recent examination of Iranian documents that Israeli intelligence brought to light in April proved Mr. Trump “was right to end [the] horrible Iran deal” and that “pressure on Iran to abandon nuclear ambitions will increase.”
Mr. Bolton specifically drew attention to a report by former International Atomic Energy Agency Deputy Director Olli Heinonen and others, who concluded that the documents “provide substantial evidence that Iran’s declarations” to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency “are incomplete and deliberately false.”
Iranian authorities have always argued that their nuclear program was peaceful and not geared toward weapons production, but the core finding of the report published Friday on the website of the Institute for Science and International Security found that Tehran hid from international inspectors the existence of an underground facility that was in fact “charged with the development and production of nuclear warheads.”
There were signs that some Arab leaders are eager for the Trump administration to follow through on its bellicose rhetoric toward Iran, even if concerns are soaring over the Syria pullout.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi suggested after meeting with Mr. Pompeo last week that Amman stands with Mr. Trump on the need to confront Iran.
“We all have problems with Iran’s expansionist policies in the region,” Mr. Safadi said at a joint press conference with the secretary of state. “We all want to make sure that whatever threat there is mitigated.”
But throughout the trip, Mr. Pompeo was dogged by questions and headlines about Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from Syria — particularly fears that Turkey will seize the moment to attack Syrian Kurds whom Washington once relied upon to battle the Islamic State.
Mr. Pompeo got drawn into a nasty back-and-forth on the Kurdish issue again over the weekend when Mr. Trump threatened on Twitter to economically “devastate” Turkey — a NATO ally — if Ankara follows through on threats to attack the Kurds once U.S. troops are gone from Syria.
The president made the threat upon announcing that the U.S. withdrawal had begun Saturday.
Mr. Pompeo dodged the issue Monday when pressed by reporters during his visit to Saudi Arabia. “You’ll have to ask the president,” he said.
Hours later, the White House announced that Mr. Trump had pushed his warning anew by “stressing” in a call Monday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “the importance to the United States that Turkey does not mistreat the Kurds and other Syrian Democratic Forces.”
Mr. Pompeo also struggled during his trip to make visible headway toward defusing a nearly 2-year-old diplomatic standoff among several Arab powers. The rift pits Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt against Qatar over claims that Doha is too closely aligned with Iran, supports the Muslim Brotherhood and turns a blind eye to terrorism financing activities.
Analysts say a Trump administration push to lure nations into an “Arab NATO” focused on countering Iran hinges on ending the standoff. But Mr. Pompeo’s efforts got off to a rocky start when it was announced just as he arrived in the region that a top administration envoy tasked with easing tension between Qatar and the others had suddenly quit.
Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general and former head of U.S. Central Command whom Mr. Trump tapped last year to help resolve the Qatar dispute, told CBS News that he was resigning “because of the unwillingness of the regional leaders” to support U.S. mediation efforts.
Mr. Pompeo still pushed the issue, asserting during a joint press conference with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani that the feud “has dragged on for too long.”
“The dispute benefits adversaries and harms our mutual interests,” he said. “The United States hopes the parties involved will see once again the benefits of cooperation and take actions necessary to rebuild unity in their ranks.”
Even though Qatar showed little interest in reconciling with the other Arab powers, Mr. Pompeo praised Doha as a key friend of Washington and signed an agreement with Mr. Al Thani to expand and renovate the Qatar-based Al-Udeid Air Base, which hosts some 10,000 American military personnel and the forward headquarters of the Pentagon’s Central Command.
Then came Monday’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where U.S. relations have been tense in the months after the brutal killing and dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi on Oct. 2 inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
While U.S. officials praise Riyadh as a critical ally in the push to counter Iran, key members of Crown Prince Mohammed’s entourage have been implicated in the Khashoggi killing and critics say Riyadh has yet to come clean on key details of the operation. U.S. intelligence agencies have reportedly concluded that the crown prince must have at least known about the Khashoggi plot.
The fallout from the writer’s death has prompted U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to demand that the Trump administration pull back American support from a years-old, Riyadh-led military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in nearby Yemen amid reports of indiscriminate Saudi bombing campaigns there.
Speaking to reporters at the end of his Riyadh stop, Mr. Pompeo said he had raised the Khashoggi case in his meetings with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman, as well as other human rights concerns and the fate of women’s rights activists who have been detained in the kingdom.
“The Saudis are friends, and when friends have conversations, you tell them what your expectations are,” he said. “And I think the Trump administration has made clear our expectation that all of those involved in the murder of Khashoggi will be held accountable.”
Although he offered few details, the secretary said the Saudi campaign in Yemen was discussed and asserted that Washington is frustrated that Iran-backed rebels in the war zone are not honoring a U.N.-brokered cease-fire reached last month.
Mr. Pompeo finished his trip with a stop in Oman, where he held talks with Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
U.S. officials said a stop planned for Kuwait on Tuesday was scrubbed because of a death in the secretary of state’s family.
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