No More Saudi Bases for US – or Blind Support for Obama on Iran

In January 2010, one month after US president Barack Obama dismantled the Israeli Defense Forces special operation which US President George W. Bush established three years ago for training Gulf Emirates security, military and intelligence operatives (see first article in this issue), Washington leaked its own plan for defending those same Persian Gulf nations against Iran.
Select US newspapers reported: “The Obama administration is quietly working with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to speed up arms sales and rapidly upgrade defenses for oil terminals and other key infrastructure in a bid to thwart future military attacks by Iran.”
The reports went on to quote officials as stating: “The initiatives, including a U.S.-backed plan to triple the size of a 10,000-man protection force in Saudi Arabia, are part of a broader push that includes unprecedented coordination of air defenses and expanded joint exercises between the U.S. and Arab militaries… All appear to be aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources noted certain omissions: There was no word of Saudi consent to the tripling of its protection force to 30,000 soldiers, how they would be raised, who would train and organize them and who supply the force with the necessary weaponry and technological gear.
Most critically, there was no word on the length of time allotted for creating the new force or when it would become operational.
Our Washington sources disclose that the leaked report was sketchy and its details left vague out of a lack of choice: Saudi King Abdullah and his top advisers, foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and interior minister Prince Nayef, are dead against any increase in the number of US military troops stationed in the oil kingdom and refused to make more bases available to them.

Riyadh is no rubber stamp for US policy

Both Riyadh and Washington keep the number of US servicemen currently serving in Saudi Arabia a close secret, but it is generally estimated at no more than 200 or 300. A 30,000-strong protection force to defend the kingdom and its oil resources and facilities against Iran would require several thousand US troops sent back to the kingdom seven years after Riyadh asked them to remove themselves for Saudi soil.
Then as now, there were deep-seated objections to a US military presence on the part of the strict Wahhabist clergy and on the grounds that al Qaeda would exploit it to stir up trouble against the royal house as it did in 2002 and 2003. But according to our sources, Riyadh's more immediate objections are prompted rather by the absence of clear answers about the Obama administration's Iran policy.
The Saudis will only open the door to thousands of American soldiers if they are there to support Saudi-US policy-sharing on Iran; Riyadh will not be a rubber-stamp for US strategy. Before going any further, they want to know unequivocally whether the Obama administration has taken America's military option off the table – or not; if Washington is absolutely committed to preventing an Israeli attack on Iran – to which the Saudis are not averse; why the Americans are refraining from putting into effect stiff sanctions already drafted for Iran -, even unilaterally, without the Security Council; why they set deadlines for Iran's compliance and turn a blind eye when they are ignored. And, if they are so determined to pre-empt Iran's drive for a nuclear bomb, why have they entered into secret talks with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the driving force of that program?

Washington bombarded with unanswered questions

For the last two months, one American official after another has ducked these questions –
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and US CENTCOM commander for the Middle East and Central Asia, Gen. David Petraeus.
At a joint press conference with Clinton in Riyadh last month, the Saudi Foreign Minister referred skeptically to another round of international sanctions against Iran as a “long-term solution”, noting that “we see the issue in the shorter term because we are closer to the threat…We need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution."
Washington's evasiveness has planted the suspicion in royal Saudi minds that the purpose of deploying thousands of US troops in the kingdom is to force them to play ball with the Obama administration's policy on Iran rather than shielding them from Iran.
Saudi officials therefore sidestep US requests for bases to accommodate a large influx of troops while letting their suspicions hang in the air between Riyadh and Washington. This lack of trust is holding up the Gulf defense plans the administration drew up in late January. It affects Obama's next steps on Iran and bears heavily on the continued US withdrawal from Iraq.
The White House accordingly asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to fly into Riyadh from Kabul on March 10 for a last-ditch attempt to talk King Abdullah round. Appreciating the importance of this mission, the Saudi King invited Gates to a private dinner at his ranch outside Riyadh, attended only by two other Saudi official guests – Crown Prince Sultan and his son Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the defense minister and acting defense minister.
But instead of shedding clarity on Washington's intentions and easing tensions with Riyadh, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in the Gulf report Gates exacerbated them. Sources in the Gulf familiar with the event reveal that the two sides failed to agree on a single issue; at times, tempers nearly got out of hand, especially when it came to Iran and Iraq. (Read item on Iranian and Saudi meddling in Iraq).

An unprecedented public disavowal

The next day, March 11, found Gates in Dubai addressing the troops of the 389 US Air Expeditionary Wing at a base described by his aides as "an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia," because the United Arab Emirates are deeply reluctant to admit to a US military presence on their territory.
Gates was uncharacteristically expansive about his talks with Saudi leaders, describing them as a big success. America's Persian Gulf allies, he said, understood that economic sanctions were unavoidable for dealing with the menace of a nuclear-armed Iran. He predicted they would work because they were supported by a broad international consensus that Iran was out of line.
The Saudis, he said, had come on board for a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. “I think there is an understanding that we have to do this, that this is the next step,” said Gates.
He added that he had persuaded the Saudis to take it upon themselves to convince China to support sanctions.
The reporters present took this as affirming that Riyadh had consented to offer to make up any oil shortfall Beijing might suffer from endorsing sanctions against Iran, a key fuel supplier. “It was our strong impression that this overall approach was one that the Saudis were supportive of,” said Gates.
But the next day, Friday, March 13, a Saudi official source dismissed this assumption. He was quoted by the official SPA news agency as saying that reports of Riyadh's willingness to use its influence to get Beijing to support UN sanctions were false.
"This issue is not true, it was not discussed during the visit of the secretary of defense who was in the kingdom recently," the source said.
Riyadh's contradiction of the US defense secretary's comments – and in such undiplomatic terms as “not true” and “false” – is symptomatic of the depth of the US-Saudi falling-out over Iran.

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