Saudi-Israel talks strategic objective, says senior US official

Barbara Leaf says discussions are highly complex but could mean breakthrough for Middle East

Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, at a Senate hearing in August 2022. Reuters
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The potential forging of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel marks a major political opportunity for the Middle East, a top US State Department official has said.

Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, admitted a deal was highly complex but a hugely significant “strategic objective” for the administration.

“It is a complex, complex set of discussions and issues … and the Palestinian component is a very significant one,” she said in an interview with The National in New York.

“We're just at the front end of understanding Saudi and Israeli thinking on this.”

Ms Leaf stressed that there is still a long road ahead.

It is very clearly understood among all of us that this is what we want to drive towards. But I can't give you a timeframe
Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs

“And, of course, the Palestinians have engaged, certainly, with our encouragement, directly with the Saudis, in laying out their desires.”

In an interview aired in the US on Wednesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Fox News that the kingdom and Israel were getting closer every day to forging a relationship.

But Ms Leaf dismissed a lot of the current coverage on the talks as “excitable speculation”, saying: “Everyone calm down a minute.”

She would also not be drawn on reports that a formal Saudi-Israel deal would lead to what was claimed to be a security pact for Riyadh with the US, though she acknowledged that there are “bilateral elements in the security domain”.

“It is very clearly understood among all of us that this is what we want to drive towards. But I can't give you a time frame for that,” Ms Leaf said.

Yemen talks 'very tough'

Speaking to The National on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Ms Leaf said that while still complex, the possibility of peace in Yemen is increasing.

“We all feel this is a moment of enhanced opportunity, enhanced momentum”, she said, in the same week that a senior Houthi delegation travelled to Riyadh for talks on ending the eight-year conflict.

Ms Leaf had visited Saudi Arabia before the Houthi delegation with US special envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, and White House co-ordinator for Middle East and North Africa, Brett McGurk, to meet senior Saudi officials.

Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Defence, told her that “this was a critical moment” for peace in Yemen.

ut Ms Leaf said there is still considerable time and effort needed to resolve “the essential issues” between the Saudis and the Houthis, to be followed later by what she described as a “pivot point” of a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue.

“It is going to be very tough,” she said, to find unity between Yemeni parties that make up the Presidential Leadership Council.

The council's head, Rashad Al Alimi, is in New York and met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week.

“When you think about where we started in 2021, and frankly, where Yemen has been for these past eight years … it is a moment of hope,” Ms Leaf said.

“But we've got to see a really constructive approach from the Houthis going forward. That's what we would like to see.”

She stressed that US policy towards Yemen was that of supporting a unified country.

“A unified Yemen is the best approach for the public good, for the neighbours both on the peninsula but also across the waterway. We do believe strongly the unified Yemen is the best way to go,” Ms Leaf said.

No obstruction from Tehran

The developments in Yemen have been seen, in part, as a result of an improvement of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the past six months.

“We don’t have any indication that the Iranians are trying to obstruct the talks,” Ms Leaf said.

US forces and international forces have made major seizures of weapons and explosives this year.

Asked whether Tehran has stopped providing the Houthis with weapons, she said it was “far from clear”.

“That would be one really important factor in seeing things really gel in those discussions,” Ms Leaf added.

The situation in Yemen, whose warring sides include groups that want to break away and form a separate state, is for the time being seen as a “detente, a relaxation of tensions".

“Time will tell if this detente is durable and is bringing a broader cessation of Iran's destabilising activities in the region,” Ms Leaf said.

Missile attacks on Saudi Arabia have dissipated since the parties returned to the negotiating table, though the situation remains fluid.

“Obviously in the first instance, Saudi Arabia would like to see that it will not be under attack – either from Iran or indirectly through Iran's proxies, either to the north or to the south,” Ms Leaf said.

“But certainly the Saudis and we would like to see a broader cessation of those activities above and beyond Saudi Arabia.”

Hostages, nuclear ambitions and support for Russia

In the past week, Tehran released five Iranian-American prisoners in exchange for five US-held Iranians and sanctions on frozen funds being lifted.

But more dual Iranian-Americans remain held by the regime.

Ms Leaf said she “fears” that Iran will take others in the future and urged Tehran to stop taking “hostages”.

And despite the development, Tehran's ambitions of enriching uranium for nuclear weapons remain in progress.

“The fact that these Americans were being held … didn't exactly advance things on the nuclear file, but it doesn't … clear the way either.”

She said it was “not clear” whether the successful prisoner swap would create any progress on dialling down nuclear ambitions.

“I cannot tell you what the course would be at this point."

Ms Leaf also said that Iran supplying Russia with weapons for use in Ukraine was a clear insight into Tehran's thinking.

“[By] entering the European battlespace in assisting Russia militarily – with devastating effect on Ukrainian civilians – Iran has chosen a very destructive path.”

In Prince Mohammed's Fox News interview, he warned that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, his country would have to also get a nuclear weapon.

Ms Leaf said in response: “I take it as a marker of their concern of where Iran is ultimately driving in terms of their programme.”

As to how the US would view a Saudi interest in nuclear weapons, Ms Leaf emphasised that her country would not want to see that.

“We're absolutely wedded to non-proliferation principles, and do not want to see anyone move towards nuclear weapons,” she said.

Another issue of rising importance in the region and beyond is the need to counter drug smuggling and use, particularly of Captagon.

Ms Leaf spoke of “bilateral discussions and technical advice to law enforcement and several of the affected countries”, however she stressed “obviously, we all know where it's coming from … it's essentially being produced, manufactured, exported illicitly from Syria, and there are elements of the regime that are very much involved in it”.

She said that measures taken to counter the drug trade “won't be sufficient an effort without really greater pressure on [Syrian President] Bashar Al Assad”.

Tackling Captagon was a primary driver for Arab countries to open up Syria in recent months, but Ms Leaf said that direct engagement “hasn't worked to date".

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Updated: September 22, 2023, 11:55 AM