It’s been almost two months since the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani brought the Middle East to the brink of a war. While Iran quickly retaliated by striking at a US base in Iraq, it was nowhere near the end of the conflict and tensions have remained high in the region ever since.
No surprise then that US Secretary Mike Pompeo was on a Middle East visit last week to discuss the regional situation with key allies, most notably with a two-day stay in Saudi Arabia. This was his first trip to the country after the killing of Soleimani, a foe which both Riyadh and Washington equally hated.
Tehran: a Common Enemy for Washington and Riyadh
After coming into power, Trump has brought Washington even closer to Riyadh, with both bonding strongly over their mutual distrust of Tehran. In fact, the US President’s first visit after assuming office was also to the Kingdom while Secretary Pompeo has been to Saudi Arabia twice already since December.
This time, too, Iran featured top of the agenda for Pompeo where he discussed threats posed by the Islamic Republic and ensured his hosts of full American support. The State Department press release afterwards said, “the United States stands with Saudi Arabia in the face of these threats, as reflected in our greater military presence in Saudi Arabia.”
Though hardly ever friends, tensions between Riyadh and Tehran have amplified multi-fold in the aftermath of drone attacks on the Abqaiq oil facility of Saudi Aramco, which the former quickly blamed on the latter.
US Has Beefed Up Military Presence in the Region
Soon after, the Kingdom sought support from the United States in the form of increased military presence, a request Washington quickly listened to by agreeing to send 3,000 soldiers. Iran expressed its apprehensions. Again in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination, the US immediately deployed another 3,500 troops across the region which has made Iran even more uneasy as it increasingly gets surrounded.
Sending a Message to Iran
In essence, the purpose of the trip was to send a message to Iran, which was heard loud and clear when Secretary Pompeo stopped at the Prince Sultan Airbase that hosts some 2,500 US troops and two American Patriot missile batteries to deter any attack from Tehran.
“I visited #PrinceSultanAirBase to highlight the long-standing USA-KSA security partnership & to reaffirm America’s determination to stand with #SaudiArabia in the face of Iranian aggression,” Pompeo tweeted.
Discussions on Yemen
The US-Saudi talks also featured Yemen as the conflict in the war-torn country shows no sign of stopping despite the recent Riyadh Agreement that seemed to offer a glimpse of hope for peace. Unsurprisingly, Iran was mentioned on that front too as Ambassador Abizaid traced the rockets used by Houthis to Tehran.
“We’ve just recently interdicted two dhows down there filled with Iranian-produced equipment that is being used by the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia. So I think it’s really important for us to understand who is the aggressor in the region, and it’s no doubt it’s the Iranians,” he was quoted as saying on Feb 20 in a press briefing.
“…a lot of people don’t understand there’s been an awful lot of missile strikes that have been supplied by missiles, supplied by the IRGC Qods Force launched from Yemen, 400 strikes, as a matter of fact, on – about – on Saudi Arabia,” the ambassador continued.
New Sanctions Against Iranian Officials
The tough talk against Tehran wasn’t just limited to the secretary or the ambassador. Back in Washington, Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook echoed the same position and announced the imposition of sanctions against five officials of the Islamic Republic, including the Ahmed Jannati, Secretary General of the Guardian Council — the body responsible for vetting candidates running for elections.
“Iran’s ongoing transfer of weapons to the Houthis violates multiple UN Security Council resolutions. These successful operations by the United States are exposing Iran’s duplicity in Yemen. While the regime claims that it supports a diplomatic solution to the conflict, its actions prove otherwise,” Hook said.
While the continuous rise in tensions between the US and Iran has put the region at risk, Saudi Arabia has been smart to cash in on the situation by beefing up its defenses, often at the cost of Washington, which in turn has been rather unconditional in its support towards the Kingdom. The latest visit by Pompeo reaffirmed exactly that.
Confronting Saudi Arabian Human Rights Abuses
The talks also involved human rights abuses by the Kingdom, such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi or the alleged hacking of Amazon’s chief Jeff Bezos by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a conversation with a senior Saudi leader that didn’t involve us trying to both make clear to them our expectations with respect to human rights and offering to provide assistance, right, trying to help them put in place the processes and systems so that they can deliver on the human rights obligations that I’m confident, that in nearly every case, the leadership wants to engage in,” Pompeo replied to a question.