SHANNON, Ireland (AFP) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to the Gulf on Sunday to seek oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s help in pressing China to join the US drive for sanctions against Iran, aides said.
The US chief diplomat’s three-day trip to Qatar and Saudi Arabia is also aimed at enlisting broader regional support, including Turkey’s, in a drive to stop Iran’s sensitive nuclear work, her aides told reporters.
Her mission comes amid a US security buildup involving the deployment of anti-missile systems to the Gulf as well as a flurry of visits to the region by senior US diplomats and military officials.
Clinton’s aides neither confirmed nor denied suggestions that they would ask Saudi leaders to offer China, which imports much of its oil from Iran, supply guarantees in return for Beijing’s support for new UN sanctions.
“Saudi Arabia has an important trading relationship with China already,” Jeffrey Feltman, Clinton’s top assistant for the Middle East, told reporters en route to Doha, via Shannon, Ireland.
Feltman noted that there have been a number of recent visits between the Gulf and China.
“We would expect them (the Saudis) to use these visits, to use their relationship in ways that can help increase the pressure that Iran feels,” said Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs.
China appears to be the strongest holdout to sanctions among the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Russia has hardened its stance towards Iran lately, expressing support for warnings by Britain, France and the United States that patience with the lack of progress in nuclear talks is running out.
In Doha, aides said, Clinton will discuss Iran but also the Middle East peace process with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, who is both foreign minister and prime minister.
She will hold similar talks with other Muslim leaders attending the seventh US-Islamic World Forum, where Clinton will deliver remarks building on President Barack Obama’s own speech in Cairo last year calling for a “new beginning” with Muslim communities worldwide.
Addressing the forum on Saturday, the Qatari premier noted progress in relations between the Muslim world and Washington since Obama took office.
“Participants in previous editions of this forum have over the past years discussed the aspects of the US relations with Muslim peoples and states at a time when tension prevailed in those relations due to the lack of correct policies,” he said.
An editorial in Qatar’s Al-Sharq daily said: “Relations between the United States and the Muslim world are not new, while common ground is available in several areas.”
Clinton will also hold talks on Iran with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is in the Qatari capital, her spokesman Philip Crowley said.
“We obviously need to have Turkey’s support as we move forward and contemplate particular actions on the pressure track,” Crowley said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is due to visit Iran next week to push for a diplomatic solution to the stand-off over Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
The sensitive process, which makes fuel for nuclear reactors but in highly extended form can also produce the fissile core of an atomic bomb, lies at the centre of Western fears that Iran is concealing a drive for a weapon, something Tehran strongly denies.
Turkey, the only NATO member that neighbours Iran, insists the row should be resolved through dialogue, arguing that economic sanctions or military action against Iran would have a damaging impact on the whole region.
China has taken a similar stand.
During the Saudi leg of her visit on Monday, Clinton is to meet King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East advisor in past US administrations, doubts the Saudis would offer oil guarantees to China, whose economy is growing rapidly, to encourage Beijing to change its stance on sanctions.
Miller told AFP US-Saudi ties have eroded since the September 11, 2001 attacks — which involved many Saudi members of Al-Qaeda — and Obama has disappointed Riyadh with his failure so far to revive Middle East peace talks.
During her tour, Clinton is also to meet the board of directors of the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera — a repeated target of US criticism — and take questions in “town-hall style” events.
Senior US diplomats James Steinberg, Jacob Lew and William Burns, and senior military officials Admiral Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus are also due to visit the region this month.