WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled on Saturday that a renewal of US-Iranian talks was likely in the future, telling reporters in Riyadh that they would take place when the time was right.
“I’ve never shut off the phone to anyone that wants to talk or have a productive conversation,” he said when asked if he would speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the wake of President Hassan Rouhani’s election. “At this point, I have no plans to call my counterpart in Iran, although in all likelihood, we will talk at the right time.”
Tillerson made his remarks during a joint press conference Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir a few hours after the United States and Saudi Arabia inked an arms deal worth some $110 billion effective immediately, along with other agreements worth $270 billion over the next 10 years.
White House officials said Saturday that “this package of defense equipment and services support the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of Iranian threats.”
The deal was billed as demonstrating America’s commitment to bolstering the kingdom’s “ability to contribute to counter-terrorism operations across the region, reducing the burden on the US military to conduct those operations,” according to a US official.
Tillerson said a centerpiece of US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was to curb any threats to the region posed by Iran, adding that the deals agreed to by both sides send a “strong message to our common enemies.”
The secretary of state said the US and Saudi Arabia were closely coordinating their efforts to counter Iranian extremism in the region and abroad, “particularly its support for foreign fighters,” adding that both countries were closely following how the nuclear deal signed in 2015 “could be used to contain Iran’s nuclear aspirations.”
Saudi Arabia, a staunch adversary of Iran, deeply opposed the nuclear accord forged between former president Barack Obama and world powers with Tehran.
Trump, who is visiting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his first foreign trip, was a vociferous opponent of the landmark pact, repeatedly referring to it on the campaign trail as one of the worst deals ever negotiated.
But since assuming office, he has been unwilling to follow through on a campaign pledge to dismantle the deal, which provides Iran sanctions relief in exchange for rolling back its nuclear program.
There have also been no direct US-Iranian talks since Trump took office.
Ten days into his presidency, Trump promised in a phone call to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to “rigorously enforc[e] the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” referring to the deal’s formal name, and “address Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.”
A few days later, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on multiple Iranian entities and individuals after the Islamic Republic defied a United Nations Security Council resolution by launching a ballistic missile test.
At the Riyadh press conference, Tillerson called on Rouhani, who won re-election earlier on Saturday, to end Iran’s role in supporting “destabilizing forces that exist in this region.”
He also expressed hope that Iran ends its ballistic missile testing and restore “the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, to freedom of organization so Iranians can live the life they deserve.”
The former CEO of ExxonMobil did not mention Saudi Arabia’s record of suppressing free speech.