TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday gave a warm boost of support to Israel in its standoff against Iran, saying “the United States is with Israel in this fight.”
Pompeo has been 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.
The tough line was welcomed in Israel, which considers Iran its greatest threat and has been leading calls for the international community to revise its 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He arrived after visiting Saudi Arabia, another fierce rival of Iran.
“We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats to Israel and the region and Iran’s ambition to dominate the Middle East remains,” Pompeo said after a nearly two-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The United States is with Israel in this fight.”
Israel has called for tough international action against Iran, citing its hostile rhetoric, support for anti-Israel militant groups and development of long-range missiles.
It also has complained the 2015 nuclear deal does not do enough to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear-weapons capability, and expressed growing concerns about Iran’s involvement in the civil war in neighboring Syria. It says it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, fearing the Iranians will launch attacks.
President Donald Trump is to decide by May 12 whether to remain in the nuclear deal. Pompeo repeated the Trump position that “if we can’t fix it, he is going to withdraw.”
Netanyahu welcomed the tough U.S. line.
“Iran must be stopped, its quest for a nuclear bomb must be stopped, its aggression must be stopped and we’re committed to stopping it together,” he said.
Netanyahu also welcomed the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the scheduled move of its embassy from Tel Aviv on May 14. Pompeo said the U.S. is “incredibly proud” of the embassy move.
The Palestinians, who claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital, have harshly criticized the U.S. move and all but cut off ties with the White House.
Earlier in Saudi Arabia, Pompeo also took aim at Iran.
“Iran destabilizes this entire region,” Pompeo said in brief remarks to journalists with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
He also urged the Saudis and their neighbors to resolve a festering dispute with Qatar that U.S. officials say Iran is exploiting to boost its influence in the region, including in Yemen and Syria.
Pompeo on Sunday met with Saudi King Salman, whose country, along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is embroiled in a row with Qatar that had hobbled Gulf Arab unity and frustrated the U.S. 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 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.
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.”
Pompeo’s meetings in Saudi Arabia and Israel, to be followed by discussions in 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 from European and other parties.
In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said that she discussed the deal with her French and German counterparts. It said they agreed that the deal should remain intact, even while addressing shortcomings.
The countries “agreed that there were important elements that the deal does not cover, but which we need to address — including ballistic missiles, what happens when the deal expires, and Iran’s destabilizing regional activity,” the statement said.
On May 14 comes the U.S. Embassy move, marking a significant shift in decades of American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.
The next day the Palestinians will mark the anniversary of what they term the “catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 war that surrounded Israel’s creation.
Dozens of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire during recent protests along border between Israel and Gaza. Those protests, spearheaded by the Islamic militant Hamas movement, are expected to peak on May 15.
Also looming over the trip is uncertainty over Trump’s policy on Syria, which has shifted between a speedy all-out withdrawal of American 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.
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