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Obama adviser discusses 'scratchy' ties with Arab allies

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Middle Eastern states should reform "consistent with their circumstances," U.S. national security adviser says
  • The U.S. has had "scratchy periods" with allies over support for reform, he says
  • "Common strategic interests" help overcome those frictions, he said

Washington (CNN) -- The United States has had "scratchy periods" with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern allies over its support for reform movements in the region, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon acknowledged in a TV interview that aired Sunday.

But Donilon told CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" that Washington and the Saudi monarchy have common interests that keep relations "in pretty good shape."

"Our conversations with our partners in the region -- including the Saudis -- I think have become very constructive and productive," Donilon said. "And I can tell you that from personal conversations with King Abdullah."

President Barack Obama notably left out any mention of Saudi Arabia in his May speech endorsing the Arab Spring upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Bahrain, where Saudi troops helped the island kingdom suppress a wave of protests in March. The U.S.-Saudi alliance dates back to the 1940s, and Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter and the second-largest source of U.S. crude imports.

That U.S. support for the Arab Spring has rankled the Saudis, who face their own calls for reform. Donilon said Middle Eastern countries should move "in a way that's consistent with their circumstances," but said Washington believes "a more representative, responsive government is the healthiest and most stable way to go over the long term."

"We did have some scratchy periods with some partners in the region who are wrestling with this and trying to work through their own views on this. I again would be less than candid with you if I didn't say that we didn't have some points of friction or disagreements with some of our partners in the region," he said. "But I think this, and based on my direct conversations with the leadership of Saudi Arabia about the kinds of common strategic interests that we have that I laid out earlier in the conversation, I think that our relationship is in pretty good shape."

Washington and Riyadh "have a shared interest in seeing that no country or force in the region seeks or tries to achieve dominance," he said. "We have a very important shared interest in seeing restrictions on weapons of mass destruction proliferation in the region. We have a shared interest in counterterrorism cooperation. We have a shared interest in the pursuit of peace. We have a shared interest in a stable supply of energy and in a healthy global economy. And that's the basis on which we work with the Saudis."

The Arab Spring movements began in Tunisia, where a popular uprising toppled longtime strongman Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in January. They quickly spread to Egypt, where street protests led U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak to step down in February, and to Libya, where a revolt against Moammar Gadhafi's four-decade rule soon led to civil war and NATO intervention against his regime.

In Yemen, the future of another U.S. ally remains uncertain after President Ali Abdullah Saleh was seriously wounded and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in early June. And in Syria, opposition protests have continued in the face of a government crackdown that human rights groups say have killed nearly 1,400 people since March.

The United States has yet to call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000. Donilon said al-Assad "has made terrible mistakes" and "obviously abused his people," but said increasing pressure from the United States and Syria's neighbors may be pushing al-Assad toward "more representative, responsive government."

Donilon said the Shiite Muslim-led Iran has tried to take advantage of the protests in the Sunni-dominated Arab states and claim the uprisings were inspired by its own 1979 revolution. But he said Tehran, which beat back its own anti-government protests following a disputed presidential elections in 2009, appears to be having limited success.

"I think, over the long haul, this is a further isolating set of events for the Iranians and not something where they're going to have an advantage," he said.