Saudi Arabia Cites Obama's Middle East Policy in Decision to Sever Diplomatic Ties

Posted: Oct 24, 2013 12:01 AM

North Korea-Panama: Update. Two diplomats from North Korea assigned in Cuba will arrive in Panama on 23 October to deal with the case of the North Korean ship and crew seized and detained in Panama for transporting undeclared Cuban weapons, according to a Panamanian official.

Ri Il Gyu, secretary of the North Korean Embassy in Havana, and Political Counselor Ra Yun Bak are scheduled to meet with Drug Prosecutor Javier Caraballo, who is handling the criminal case.

Comment: Panamanian authorities said this week they are prepared to release the ship and 33 of the 35 crew members. The captain and his mate are to remain in custody under criminal charges.

The ship is not seaworthy. Repairs and removal will be one of the agenda items in the talks.

United Kingdom-Iran: An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the UK and Iran will appoint non-resident charges d'affaires within eight days. After that, the Iranian Embassy in London and the British Embassy in Tehran will reopen and the two countries will close their interests sections. The Iranian spokesperson said this is first step towards a gradual normalization of relations.

Comment: Iran and Britain agreed on 8 October to appoint non-resident chargés d'affaires as a first step toward reopening their embassies during a meeting on the sidelines of the Geneva talks. What appears to have facilitated this move was a recent set of UK court decisions that found that British sanctions on Iranian banks were arbitrary and capricious and had to be lifted. The Iranian parliament downgraded relations with the UK in 2011 after the government imposed sanctions on Iranian banks.

The European Union has already lifted sanctions on Iran's largest bank and another bank. The European commitment to some Iraniansanctions appears to be slipping.

Saudi Arabia-US: Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats the kingdom will make a "major shift" in its relations with the United States, according to an unidentified source close to Saudi policy on 22 October.

Prince Bandar said the US had failed to act effectively on the Syria crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was growing closer to Tehran, and had failed to back Saudi support for Bahrain when it crushed an anti-government revolt in 2011.

Prince Bandar also that he plans to limit interaction with the US. "Relations with the US have been deteriorating for a while, as Saudi feels that the U.S. is growing closer with Iran and the U.S. also failed to support Saudi during the Bahrain uprising," according to the source. Bandar reportedly said there would be no further coordination with the United States over the fighting in Syria.

Comment: The information comes from an unidentified source, but appears consistent with Saudi Arabia's reasons for refusing to accept a seat on the UN Security Council as a rotating member. That suggests it is an official leak. In announcing this action, the Saudi attitudes towards the US resembles the Iranian hardline clerics who said this week that if the US is encouraged by Iranian diplomacy then the diplomacy is wrong.

Saudi Arabian leaders have been quietly but sternly critical of multiple recent US actions in the Middle East, especially the installation of a Shiite-led government in Baghdad through elections. They have not broken openly with the US.

This is a serious policy setback because it spotlights that Saudi and US interests are not congruent on the four or five top issues driving instability in the Middle East. In addition, the leaders define the end states of current initiatives differently.

This is particularly true with respect to Iran's nuclear program in that the US is relaxing its longstanding policy position that Iran must halt uranium enrichment. The US appears to be moving to a containment strategy, which it has rejected consistently and as recently as last summer. President Ruhani's election and change of style not substance marks the turning point.

With respect to Syria, Saudi officials seem similar backsliding in the US agreement with Russia to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. Although the US Secretary of State insists President Asad must go, the agreement absolutely depends on the continuation of the Baathist government in Damascus. The US treats Syrian issues as separate from Iranian nuclear issues. The Saudis perceive them as inseparable.

These are not just policy differences. They are world view differences. They will not be bridged easily, if the Saudis are serious about a public breach with the US.

End of NightWatch


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