Under pressure from Congress, the Trump administration faces a dilemma: how to respond to the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi while ensuring that any punitive action does not alienate Riyadh, a key ally against Iran.
Leading senators have already made their displeasure clear with Saudi Arabia, with Senator Bob Corker telling Reuters, “You can’t go around killing journalists.”
Saudi Arabia’s denials that it had any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance have fallen on deaf ears in Congress, with nearly a quarter of the Senate triggering a U.S. investigation into the case.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who forged close ties with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman upon taking office, has also increasingly expressed frustration with the case.
Harsh actions against one of Trump’s stalwart allies would be a sharp contrast with the administration’s relatively muted tone over the kingdom’s role in the war in Yemen and a crackdown on internal dissent.
Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged the case – if Saudi responsibility is confirmed – could complicate the U.S. strategy to contain Iran, in its bid to gain influence throughout the Middle East.
“It could affect multiple things that we’re working with them on that are very important,” Corker said on Wednesday, adding that the Senate’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was at a “very, very low point.”
Riyadh already is facing a backlash in Congress where anger has been mounting over civilian casualties in the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen.
On Wednesday, a week after Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 disappearance, the White House said that senior officials had spoken to the crown prince, referred to in shorthand as MbS, and Trump described the case as a “very serious situation.”
The outcry from lawmakers of both parties, including Republican allies of Trump, foreign policy analysts, former U.S. officials and leading media commentators who knew Khashoggi, has intensified pressure on the White House to take a hard line.
Khashoggi, who had been living in the United States for the past year, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waiting outside, said he never emerged and Turkish sources said they believe Khashoggi was killed inside the building, allegations that Riyadh dismisses as baseless.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who golfed with Trump last weekend, warned on Wednesday “there will be hell to pay” if Saudi responsibility is proven.
“If they’re this brazen it shows contempt, contempt for everything we stand for, contempt for the relationship. I don’t want to prejudge, but if it goes down the road that I’m worried about it going down, contempt will be met with contempt,” he said.
Later on Wednesday, nearly a quarter of the Senate’s members wrote a letter to Trump that triggered a U.S. investigation into the case that could result in sanctions against individual Saudis under a U.S. human rights law.
The Saudi embassy had no immediate comment on the letter.
Story by Reuters.