MESOP NEWS SPECIAL MIDDLE EAST : U.S. Seeks to Bolster Saudi Arabia in Face of Expanding Iranian Threat

Trump administration exploring range of actions to stop Iran’s supply of sophisticated weapons to its Middle East allies, including Hezbollah – By Dion Nissenbaum and Felicia Schwartz – Nov. 18 Nov 2017 – WALLSTREET JOURNAL

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is looking at ways to quickly strengthen Saudi Arabia’s missile defenses and disrupt the flow of advanced Iranian-made weapons across the Middle East as concerns grow over a destabilizing new crisis in the region.U.S. officials said they have rushed to ease regional tensions after an eruption of unexpected developments, including Saudi Arabia’s internal political upheaval, the mysterious resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister while visiting Riyadh, and the launch by Tehran-backed rebels in Yemen of an Iranian-made missile that was shot down near the Saudi capital.The Trump administration is pushing for a quick resolution to the political stalemate in Lebanon so the U.S. and Saudi Arabia can focus on what Washington sees as the most significant regional threat: Iran’s supply of sophisticated weapons to its Middle East allies, including Hezbollah.

A still image taken from a video distributed by Yemen’s pro-Houthi Al Masirah television station showing what it says was the Nov. 4 launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh’s airport.“The state of uncertainty is not serving anyone but Hezbollah and its allies,” said a senior Trump administration official. “The longer it goes on, the worse it is for Saudi interests and U.S. interests and the interest of our friends.”

To address what it sees as the biggest danger from recent developments, the Trump administration is exploring new plans to help deter the Iranian threats. Top of the agenda is making sure Saudi Arabia has the ability to defend itself from any further missile attacks.Last month, the Trump administration cleared the way for Saudi Arabia to buy a multibillion-dollar missile defense system. The approvals allow Saudi Arabia to purchase up to $15 billion in launchers, missiles, radar and technology to help counter the threat. U.S. officials said that deal could be accelerated as a result of the missile fired at Riyadh earlier this month, which Saudi Arabia blamed on Iran.The U.S. is also considering new ways to disrupt the flow of Iranian-made missiles being deployed across the Middle East. The U.S. Navy has previously seized what it says are Iranian-made weapons bound for Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen, who are embroiled in a protracted fight with Saudi Arabia.

The most recent missile attack aimed at Riyadh elevated concerns about the spread of more advanced missiles to Iranian allies, U.S. officials said. A U.N. resolution linked to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement bars the transfer of arms, including missiles, to and from Iran. U.S. officials see more room to enforce that ban, which expires in 2020.

U.S. Seeks to Bolster Saudi Arabia in Face of Expanding Iranian Threat

The U.S. military also could step up its efforts to seize weapons shipments going through the Persian Gulf and across the region, U.S. officials said. Additionally, it could mount an expanded public campaign to expose the weapons transfers and make the case that Iran is accelerating efforts to get more sophisticated weapons to its allies, the officials said.

Saudi Arabia choked off transportation access to Yemen after the latest missile launch, drawing protest from humanitarian-aid groups and some U.S. lawmakers who said Riyadh’s move would exacerbate cholera and famine in Yemen.U.S. officials are also talking to allies about efforts to constrain Iran’s ballistic missile program, a move the Trump administration sought even before the latest launch. Administration officials say they hope to use this month’s thwarted attack on Riyadh as a catalyst for international support.

“It could be an impetus for taking some sort of collective action to try to constrain the Iranians in that regard,” the senior administration official said.But U.S. officials are also concerned about the surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi ally who has blasted Iran and its ally Hezbollah for stoking regional tensions.

Mr. Hariri’s fate has created a frustrating complication for the Trump administration, which wants some clarity so it can galvanize support for new action against Iran.

“We and the Saudis agreed that it was unfortunate that…the real threat of active war against the Saudi capital was overshadowed by the prime minister’s resignation,” the senior administration official said.Mr. Hariri issued his surprise resignation two weeks ago from Saudi Arabia, which has expressed growing concerns about Hezbollah’s expanding influence in Lebanon. Lebanese leaders have urged Mr. Hariri to return to Beirut, where he must personally present his resignation to the president for it to take effect. U.S. officials wouldn’t discuss speculation that Saudi Arabia forced Mr. Hariri to resign.

Lebanese political leaders have said Mr. Hariri is effectively a captive in Saudi Arabia, and his decision to remain there has only fueled the perception that leaders in Riyadh forced him to step aside. U.S. officials said they hope Mr. Hariri’s plans to accept an invitation from France to visit Paris on Saturday will silence questions about his ability to freely travel.

“We thought it might not be bad for him to go someplace like Paris in order to demonstrate that he had freedom of movement,” the senior administration official said.

U.S. officials, who said they got no heads-up about Saudi Arabia’s plans for an internal crackdown or pivotal meeting with Mr. Hariri, said they didn’t think the Saudis had thought through the full consequences of their actions, including the decision to order Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon as the crisis worsened. The U.S. relayed its displeasure to Saudi Arabia and the situation has calmed down slightly, an official said, expressing hope to see some clarity about Mr. Hariri’s next moves soon.

“The next couple of days will be telling,” a second U.S. official said. At the same time, the U.S. has worked to coordinate moves with Israel in hopes of averting an immediate clash with Hezbollah. Members of the National Security Council recently flew to Israel for talks, U.S. officials said.

Israel has carried out scores of airstrikes in neighboring Syria since 2012 aimed at Hezbollah weapons depots and arms shipments. The most recent reported airstrike in Syria, which Israel hasn’t acknowledged, took place on Nov. 2—two days before Saudi Arabia launched its internal crackdown, Mr. Hariri resigned, and the Saudis shot down the missile near Riyadh.