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Pompeo, in Saudi Arabia, talks tough on Iran, Gulf dispute

The secretary of state met Sunday with Saudi King Salman, just days after he was sworn in following a narrow Senate confirmation.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with King Salman (right) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.BANDAR AL-JALOUD / AFP - Getty Images

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is using the Middle East leg of his first trip abroad as America's top diplomat to call for concerted international action to punish Iran for its missile programs.

He's also urging Saudi Arabia and its neighbors to resolve a long-festering dispute with Qatar that U.S. officials say Iran is exploiting to boost its influence in the region, including in Yemen and Syria.

The visit to Riyadh just two days after Pompeo was sworn-in comes as President Donald Trump is set to decide whether to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which is still supported by European powers.

Pompeo's meetings in Saudi Arabia, which will be followed by discussions in Israel and Jordan, come just weeks ahead of several key dates that could bring further volatility to the region.

Trump has set a May 12 deadline to decide whether to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, something he appears likely to do despite heavy pressure to stay in.

Two days later, the United States plans to open its new embassy in Jerusalem. That will mark a significant shift in decades of U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, who also claim Jerusalem as their capital.

The embassy move is deeply opposed by the Palestinians, who on May 15 will mark the anniversary of what they term the "nakba," or catastrophe, when they fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 war that attended Israel's creation. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire during recent violent protests along border between Israel and Gaza.

On Friday at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, the first stop on his trip, Pompeo repeated Trump's pledge to withdraw from the Iran deal unless it is significantly strengthened. He said the United States was "unlikely" to stay in if that was not done.

"Absent a substantial fix, absent overcoming the shortcomings, the flaws of the deal, he is unlikely to stay in that deal past this May," Pompeo said.

On Sunday a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Theresa May said she had held calls with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel following their meetings with Trump in the past week.

The leaders "discussed the importance of the Iran nuclear deal as the best way of neutralizing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran," the spokesperson said.

"Acknowledging the importance of retaining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, they committed to continue working closely together and with the U.S. on how to tackle the range of challenges that Iran poses — including those issues that a new deal might cover."

Also looming over the trip is uncertainty over Trump's policy on Syria, which has shifted between a speedy all-out withdrawal of U.S. forces and leaving a lasting footprint to deter Iran from completing a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.

Pompeo also is taking a leading role in Trump's preparations for an expected summit in May or early June with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Pompeo, while en route to Israel, was asked whether a U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal would complicate negotiations

"I don't think Kim Jung Un is staring at the Iran deal and saying, 'Oh goodness, if they get out of that deal, I won't talk to the Americans anymore.' There are higher priorities, things he is more concerned about than whether the Americans stay" in the accord, Pompeo said

Pompeo met Sunday with Saudi King Salman, whose country, along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is embroiled in a row with Qatar that has hobbled Gulf Arab unity and frustrated the United States as it seeks to blunt growing Iranian assertiveness.

"I think they would all agree that it's in everyone's best interests that the Gulf states all figure out how to be together," Pompeo told reporters as he traveled to Israel. "We've got a common challenge in Iran I think they all recognize that. We're hopeful that they will in their own way figure out their dispute between them."

The ex-CIA chief had arrived in Riyadh a day earlier, shortly after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles at Saudi Arabia's southern city of Jizan, killing one person and underscoring what U.S. officials said is a growing threat emanating from Iran.

Senior U.S. officials traveling with Pompeo blamed Iran for smuggling the missiles into Yemen. They said the incident highlighted the importance of the Trump administration's push to counter Iran in the region. Iran has also provided crucial support to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"Iran destabilizes this entire region," Pompeo said in brief remarks to journalists with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, taking no questions. While not mentioning Qatar by name, Pompeo also stressed that Gulf unity was "essential."

Al-Jubeir said the kingdom "supports the policy of the Trump administration against Iran and to improve the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran."

Senior U.S. officials, who were not authorized to preview Pompeo's discussions with the Saudi leadership and spoke on condition of anonymity, said he would make it clear to the Saudis that the dispute with Qatar must end.

Mediation efforts led by Kuwait and supported by U.S. officials, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom Trump fired last month, have proven unsuccessful. The split gives Iran "room to play" and hampers cooperation on a wide array of other issues, including combating violent extremism from the Islamic State and other groups, the officials said.

The officials said Pompeo would call on other nations to impose tougher sanctions against Iranian individuals, businesses and government agencies involved in missile development. They said he'd also stress the U.S. commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia, Israel and other friends and partners in the region.

Pompeo will also press the Saudis on contributing more to stabilization efforts in territory in Syria recently liberated from the Islamic State group, the officials said.