White House downplays flurry of meetings with Mideast leaders

Administration sources say powwows with regional heads of state are no indication that US action on Syria or Iran is in the works

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US President Barack Obama, left, and Jordan's King Abdullah II shake hands following a joint press conference at the King's Palace in Amman, Jordan, on Friday, March 23, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama, left, and Jordan's King Abdullah II shake hands following a joint press conference at the King's Palace in Amman, Jordan, on Friday, March 23, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

NEW YORK – Obama administration sources are warning against reading too much into a series of top-level meetings between President Barack Obama and Middle East leaders in the coming weeks.

Just four weeks after Obama’s visit to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan in late March, the US president will sit down to a working lunch with United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan on Tuesday. The two will discuss their countries’ “common strategic interests in the Gulf region and broader Middle East,” according to a White House statement in early April.

One week later, on April 23, Obama will host Qatar’s Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, with the White House’s announcement of the meeting emphasizing the “close defense partnership” between the two countries. On April 26, Obama will meet for the second time in a month with King Abdullah II of Jordan. The meeting will deal with, among other things, “the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and additional regional issues of mutual concern,” according to the White House.

Finally, Obama is slated to meet with Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 16 in the White House. The two are expected to discuss Syria and other security issues.

The series of high-level meetings has raised speculations about possible American action in the region, especially in connection with the ongoing civil war in Syria or the nuclear development standoff with Iran.

But the White House is careful to signal otherwise.

“It is true that we announced a number of upcoming visits by leaders from the Middle East as well as from Turkey,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “The President looks forward to welcoming his counterparts from the UAE, from Qatar, Jordan and Turkey to Washington over the next several weeks.”

But, he added, the meetings merely “reflect [Obama’s] commitment and interest in the region and in our policies towards the region….President Obama has very close relationships with these leaders, and he has a deep personal interest in the region, as you saw during his recent trip.”

“The meetings have been long scheduled,” an administration source familiar with the Mideast leaders’ visits told the Times of Israel this week. “So, beyond signifying the president’s continued engagement in Middle East issues…I wouldn’t read more into it.”

According to Carney, Obama “will use these opportunities to discuss the complex developments in the broader Middle East — so not just Syria, but including Syria. There are obviously a number of issues for these leaders and the President to discuss, including Syria; including his recent visit to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories; including the broader developments in the Arab Spring.”

On Friday, Carney rebuffed a reporter’s suggestion in a White House press briefing that the North Korean crisis has shifted the White House’s attention away from Iran.

“We have not taken any focus off of Iran. The president was in Israel recently and that is a matter of concern that we share with the Israelis. Iran was a top subject of conversation with the Israeli government and the prime minister,” Carney said.

He added that the US has led the international imposition of “unprecedented” sanctions intended to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.

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