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Tillerson woos Gulf allies in push to reduce Iran’s influence

Updated October 23, 2017

RIYADH: Top US diplomat Rex Tillerson pursued efforts to curb Iran’s influence in talks with Gulf allies on Sunday, but there was scant hope of a breakthrough in attempts to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

As well as talks with senior Saudi functionaries in Riyadh including King Salman, Tillerson attended a landmark meeting between Saudi Arabia and Iraq aimed at upgrading strategic ties between the Arab neighbours.

The meeting appeared aimed at boosting Saudi Arabia’s clout in Iraq, part of a wider regional battle for influence that extends from Syria to Yemen.

Tillerson’s visit comes just weeks after President Donald Trump refused to certify the Iran nuclear deal, leaving its fate to the US Congress, and laid out an aggressive new strategy against Tehran in a bellicose speech.

“This event highlights the strength and breadth as well as the great potential of relations between your countries,” the US diplomat said at the first meeting of the joint Saudi-Iraqi coordination council in Riyadh.

Following years of tensions with Riyadh, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the meeting as an “important step towards enhancing relations”, while King Salman warned of the dangers of “extremism, terrorism, as well as attempts to destabilise our countries”.

The question of Iranian influence has also been at the heart of the diplomatic conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Tillerson headed to Doha later in the day for talks on defusing the crisis between two key US allies.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut ties with Qatar and imposed an embargo in June, accusing it of supporting terrorism and cosying up to Iran. Doha denies the charges and has rejected their terms for a settlement.

Tillerson made an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the dispute during a trip to the region in July.

President Trump, after initially appearing to support the effort to isolate Qatar, has called for mediation and recently predicted a rapid end to the crisis.

But before he arrived at Riyadh’s King Salman airbase on Saturday, Tillerson indicated there had been little progress. “I do not have a lot of expectations for it being resolved anytime soon,” he said in an interview with financial news agency Bloomberg.

“There seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage.”

Aside from the Gulf dispute and Iran, the conflict in Yemen and counterterrorism would also figure in his talks, the State Department said. On the Gulf crisis, the goal would be to try to persuade the two sides to at least open a dialogue.

Simon Henderson, a veteran of the region now at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, said the disputing parties did not want to lose face. “Tillerson will say: ‘Come on kids, grow up and wind down your absurd demands. And let’s work on a compromise on your basic differences’,” he said.

Kuwait has tried to serve as a mediator, with US support, but the parties have yet to sit down face-to-face.

During his trip Tillerson is also to visit New Delhi in order to build what he said in a recent speech could be a 100-year “strategic partnership” with India.

Tillerson will stop in Islamabad to try to sooth Pakistani fears about this Indian outreach, but also pressure the government to crack down harder on militant groups.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2017