Iran General NewsIran, Mideast peace likely Obama focus in Saudi

Iran, Mideast peace likely Obama focus in Saudi

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ImageAP: President Barack Obama begins a crucial Mideast trip Wednesday with a visit to Saudi Arabia, where concerns about U.S. outreach to Iran, the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and the kingdom's willingness to accept Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo will all likely be on the agenda.

The Associated Press

By DONNA ABU-NASR

ImageRIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — President Barack Obama begins a crucial Mideast trip Wednesday with a visit to Saudi Arabia, where concerns about U.S. outreach to Iran, the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and the kingdom's willingness to accept Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo will all likely be on the agenda.

The range of issues highlights the important relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, one of Washington's strongest allies in the Middle East. The Sunni Arab powerhouse is also the world's largest oil exporter and its king is considered the guardian of Islam's holiest places, Mecca and Medina.

Denis McDonough, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Friday that Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia is "part of our outreach to the Muslim world, but also an opportunity … to discuss a range of important concerns from energy to Middle East peace to the fight against extremism."

Obama will likely be looking for Saudi Arabia's support in pushing forward Mideast peace but will have to address the kingdom's concerns about Washington's recent diplomatic outreach to its Shiite rival Iran, said Saudi analyst Khaled al-Dakhil on Tuesday.

"He will be sounding out Saudi leaders about what should be done in the region," said al-Dakhil.

Obama took office promising to step up diplomatic efforts to address concerns over Iran's nuclear program, which the U.S. and many of its allies suspect is focused on building weapons capability — a charge denied by Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries in the Mideast are concerned the U.S. could cut a deal with Iran that would come at their expense, a fear U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to dispel when he visited the region last month. He pledged the U.S. will keep its allies in the loop as it reaches out to Iran.

Despite these tensions, many Saudis expect a smoother ride with Obama than his predecessor, who strained relations with Muslim world with his invasion of Iraq and his aggressive war on terrorism.

"If we succeeded in preserving the Saudi-U.S. relationship with George Bush as president, we can do much better with Obama," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Al-Watan newspaper.

He said he expected the discussion with Saudi Arabia on Mideast peace to be productive since the kingdom agrees with Obama's demands that Israel support the creation of a Palestinian state and stop building settlements in the West Bank. Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has refused to concede to either of these demands.

Saudi King Abdullah has been an active player in promoting Mideast peace. He proposed an initiative in 2002 that offers Israel collective Arab recognition in exchange for withdrawal from territory it occupied in the 1967 war, the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

Saudi Arabia also helped broker a unity government between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas in 2007, although the agreement fell apart several months later. The split has sparked violence and complicated the Obama administration's efforts to push forward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Khashoggi said he expected Saudi Arabia to "work hard, if asked, to reconcile the Palestinians because there's an opportunity."

Mark Lippert, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, said Friday that Pakistan will also be on the agenda when Obama meets with Abdullah. The kingdom has a close relationship with Pakistan, and the U.S. has asked for help in staving off the spread of militants in the country.

Obama will also likely be looking for help from Saudi Arabia on an issue that strikes much closer to home: the dilemma of what to do with some 100 Yemeni detainees locked up in Guantanamo Bay prison.

Discussions over where to send the Yemeni detainees have delayed plans to close the prison. The U.S. has been hesitant to send them home because of Yemen's history of either releasing extremists or allowing them to escape from prison.

Instead, the Obama administration has been negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Yemen for months to send them to Saudi terrorist rehabilitation centers. Saudi Arabia has one of the most successful jihadist rehabilitation programs in the world, although several extremists who have passed through it have returned to violence.

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