The Obama administration is seeking to advance talks among Saudi Arabia and its neighbors on a missile defense system against Iran, while slowing any plans among Arab Gulf states to intervene militarily in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met for almost two hours with Saudi King Abdullah on Friday, conferring on regional military strategy and how to increase oil sanctions against Iran while ensuring ample global petroleum supplies. Governments are under pressure to reduce purchases of Iranian crude, and the U.S. hopes Saudi supplies can ease the transition.
The talks are occurring amid increased international concern over Iran's uranium enrichment activity and speculation that military action by the U.S. or Israel may occur. The U.S., Israel and some Arab countries accuse Iran of trying to build nuclear weapons, but the Islamic republic insists its program is solely for peaceful energy and research purposes.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said Friday he was plowing ahead with potential sanctions against countries that keep buying oil from Iran, including U.S. allies, in the deepening campaign to starve Iran of money for its nuclear program. The world oil market is tight but deep enough to keep the squeeze on Iran, Obama said.
U.S. officials didn't provide all the details of Clinton's meeting with Abdullah, which included an hour when the two spoke privately without any aides present. They expressed a shared commitment to a stable international oil market, senior State Department officials said, outlining the discussions on condition of anonymity.
America's top diplomat and the Saudi monarch also discussed coordination among the Arab Gulf states on how to unite their defensive capacities into a cohesive regional strategy. Despite sensing a shared threat from Shiite power Iran, wide technical and political divisions separate the Sunni countries, which span the oil-rich kingdoms of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to impoverished Yemen.
The United States is already planning to sell defensive missile technology to the U.A.E., which along with Saudi Arabia ranks among the more advanced militarily. But Washington wants the big and small Gulf governments to reconcile their distrust of each other and develop a united long-term missile defense architecture.
The talks will continue Saturday at a security conference bringing together the U.S. and the Arab Gulf states. They will also discuss U.N. mediation efforts to end a year of repression by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
Clinton is hoping to build momentum ahead of Sunday's 60-nation gathering of the "Friends of the Syrian People" in Istanbul. The U.S. remains opposed to arming Syria's rebels, which some Gulf states have proposed, even as continued violence is stymying U.N. efforts to persuade Damascus to make good on a cease-fire plan it has accepted.
Instead, the U.S. is working to help unify the splintered opposition's ranks while pushing for humanitarian aid and further isolation of Assad's regime. It is hoping that some glimmers of progress will persuade Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others, to hold back on calls for more aggressive approaches, including the establishment of safe zones for rebel operations.
International opponents of Assad are struggling to pin down a strategy on Syria even as the peace plan put forward by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is failing to get off the ground. Syria accepted the six-point plan, but there has been no halt in fighting and the opposition suspects Assad has no intention of stopping his crackdown. Western diplomats also fear Assad may only be playing for time.
Assad said Thursday that he wants the plan to succeed, but he insisted the opposition must first commit to a cease-fire as well. The U.N.'s Annan urged the Syrian government to pull back its troops first, and U.S. officials said much of the diplomacy right now concerns the delicate choreography of how the two sides would lay down their weaponry.
Syrian activists say fresh fighting erupted Friday between soldiers and rebel fighters in the country's northern Idlib province. More than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria's violence since last March, according to U.N. estimates.