Kerry's visit an attempt to ease U.S.-Saudi rift

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit with Saudi officials Monday put a smiling face on strained relations between longtime allies but probably did little to ease concerns in the kingdom that Washington has been too lax in confronting opponents in Syria, Egypt and Iran.

At a news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Mr. Kerry praised the kingdom as "the senior player" in the Middle East and pledged fidelity to the "deep relationship" that has endured between Washington and Riyadh for 75 years.

But nagging policy conflicts and divergent views on the best path to peace could be heard between the lines of the two allies' friendly posturing.

"A true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness, rather than mere courtesy," the prince told reporters, alluding to what was apparently a strained exchange between the two diplomats.

Saudi Arabia last month made clear its pique over U.S. policy in the region when it rejected a seat on the U.N. Security Council, normally considered an influential platform given its members' ability to set the world body's agenda.

In a statement declining the two-year stint, Saudi officials lambasted the Security Council, on which the United States holds one of five permanent seats, for having failed over 65 years to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians and "allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people" with chemical weapons. The Saudi Foreign Ministry statement also struck out at the council's failure to ensure a nuclear-free Middle East, alluding to Western tolerance of atomic weapons widely suspected to be in Israel's arsenal.

The Saudis appeared to be most aggrieved by the Obama administration's decision against bombing military positions of Syrian President Bashar Assad after threatening for more than a year to punish any use of chemical weapons. A U.N. inspection team has confirmed that sarin nerve gas was used in attacks in rebel-held territory near Damascus on Aug. 21.

U.S. alarm over the evolving rift with Riyadh intensified in mid-October, when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, told European diplomats that the kingdom planned a "major shift" in its relations with Washington. The comments made behind closed doors, and promptly leaked to U.S. and European media, criticized U.S. inaction on Syria, indecision after the July military coup in Egypt and Washington's pursuit of better relations with Saudi archenemy Iran.

Mr. Kerry said at Monday's news conference that he shared the Saudis' frustration with the conflicts roiling the Middle East but urged persistence in working through U.N. diplomacy. He sought to assure Riyadh that Washington remains steadfast in ensuring that Iran never obtains atomic weapons capability. "The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. That policy has not changed," he said.


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