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Mnuchin Visits Saudi Arabia: US Policy Focuses on Terrorism Amid Khashoggi Uproar

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin visited Saudi Arabia this past Sunday despite uproar over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Mnuchin justified his trip by emphasizing the importance of the economic and strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, while at the same time stressing the need for the U.S. to serve as a leader for human rights.

Mnuchin and President Trump have stressed that it is premature to issue sanctions or other penalties against Saudi Arabia for a potential human rights abuse. Mnuchin in particular stated that “it was important to wait for more facts to emerge before determining if Saudi Arabia should face sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act — which authorizes the government to penalize human rights offenders.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during his interview with Reuters in Jerusalem on October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during his interview with Reuters in Jerusalem on October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

However, Mnuchin did withdraw from participating in an investor conference hosted in Saudi Arabia, which he was originally supposed to attend during the trip. He said that while conversations with global business leaders would be inappropriate, it was necessary to host discussions regarding terrorism and Iran. Mnuchin will visit the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center in Riyadh, as well as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait to discuss the struggle against terrorist financing.

A primary target of this battle against terrorist financing is Iran, namely because of its involvement in the conflicts in Yemen and Afghanistan. During Mnuchin’s visit, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and several other regional allies imposed sanctions on individuals in Iran for their support of the Taliban. Mnuchin issued a statement on Tuesday that "the United States and our partners will not tolerate the Iranian regime exploiting Afghanistan to further their destabilizing behavior.”

Iran is a primary area of concern for the U.S. and its regional allies because of the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and imposition of sanctions that will begin on November 4th. The U.S. has an interest in maintaining a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia in order to curb Iran’s militarism and regional aggression. Furthermore, the United States’ tough stance on Iran has cemented its dependency on Saudi oil supplies and alienated the U.S. from European allies that rely on Iranian oil. The penalties associated with the sanctions present a financial risk and obstacle for the European Union and European businesses.

Given these considerations, Mnuchin’s visit to Saudi Arabia indicates not only the importance to the U.S. that its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia is maintained, but also the complications that may follow as more details emerge regarding the fate of Jamal Khashoggi. If the U.S. is confronted with a situation in which it cannot deny a human rights abuse by the Saudi government, it may be forced to impose sanctions on a critical regional ally.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud 2017. Wikipedia

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud 2017. Wikipedia