JERUSALEM—The Trump administration, under pressure to sanction Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is seeking ways to maintain the two countries’ strategic alliance.
An array of lawmakers from both parties urged sanctions on the kingdom as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin prepared to visit Saudi Arabia on Monday. Mr. Mnuchin told a small group of reporters that the administration’s relationship with Riyadh was critical to the U.S. campaign to counter Iran’s bid to become the region’s dominant power.
Mr. Mnuchin said it was too early in the investigations of Mr. Khashoggi’s death to discuss sanctioning the kingdom. But he suggested the U.S. generally should punish gross human-rights abuses and target those responsible for them, leaving the door open for possible punitive action.
He said his message in visiting Saudi Arabia—the primary challenger to Iranian power in the Middle East and a crucial oil supplier—was that the two countries “have very important issues that we continue to focus on,” including combating terrorist financing and countering Iran.
“We will continue in that relationship, while we also simultaneously want to get to the bottom of what the facts are about the Khashoggi situation, which is obviously a terrible situation,” Mr. Mnuchin said after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The situation is complicated by the involvement of Turkey, because Mr. Khashoggi, who had been a critic of the Saudi government, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday he would shortly disclose the truth as to how Mr. Khashoggi was killed.
“We are looking for justice here, and [the facts] will be revealed in all their naked truth,” Mr. Erdogan said, pledging to reveal the details during an address to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party on Tuesday.
Mr. Mnuchin last week sent a message of rebuke to Saudi Arabia by canceling plans to speak at the Future Investment Initiative, a conference critical to promoting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to restructure the economy.
Mr. Mnuchin’s withdrawal from the so-called “Davos in the desert” capped the summit’s weeklong hemorrhaging of dozens of top financial and investment executives.
Saudi Arabia said early Saturday that Mr. Khashoggi died in its Istanbul consulate after a fistfight. Some 18 Saudi nationals have been detained in connection with the incident, and two top officials have been relieved of their positions.
That has done little to quell the furor, and officials said President Trump is weighing a more formal response even as he gives Riyadh time to complete its investigation.
Lawmakers urged sanctions against Saudi Arabia on Sunday, and some want the administration to cancel a $110 billion weapons deal with Riyadh. Members of Congress from both parties have taken a harsher tone than the administration, especially since the Saudis’ citing of a brawl in Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
“It’s insulting to anyone who is analyzing this with any kind of intelligent background to think that a fistfight led to a dismemberment with a bone saw,” said Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, on “Fox News Sunday.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) said on ABC’s “This Week,” “I don’t find this Saudi account credible at all.” Mr. Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called for a “re-examination of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Hitting Riyadh with a brace of sanctions could jeopardize Saudi cooperation on Iran and terror financing, some analysts say, and Mr. Trump has rejected calls to halt Saudi arms sales.
Tough sanctions, including some against senior Saudi decision makers, “would cause severe damage to the relationship,” said Neil Quilliam, a senior fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Mr. Mnuchin said it would be “premature to comment on sanctions” before the investigations are complete. He said that once the probe is done, the president will work with Congress to develop a response. In the meantime, Mr. Mnuchin said he had recently discussed the issue in depth over dinner with one of the most vocal backers of sanctions, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.).
While Mr. Mnuchin acknowledged the Khashoggi killing could affect U.S.-Saudi ties, he said it hadn’t subverted the longstanding strategic relationship.
The secretary’s Saudi visit, the second stop on a six-country tour, comes days ahead of a November deadline when the U.S.’s most crippling sanctions against Iran take effect.
The U.S. earlier this year pulled out of the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran. Against the wishes of European allies, who were also parties to the accord, the administration has launched a campaign to squeeze Iran out of the global economy until Tehran agrees to Washington’s new terms.
That would require broad international cooperation. As the Middle East’s biggest economy and home to Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has a good deal of sway. It is also being called upon to boost output to offset falling Iranian oil exports.
Saudi Arabia, a longtime rival of Iran, has promised to pump more oil and encourage sanction compliance. It is also a valuable intelligence source for the U.S. on Tehran’s provision of weapons, finances, technology and warriors to its allies in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, as well as terror groups.
Mr. Mnuchin plans to visit the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center established in Riyadh last year by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and others.
That effort has yet to come to full fruition, as many of the countries that are supposed to be members still don’t have representatives at the facility. “We have more work to do,” Mr. Mnuchin said.
—David Gauthier-Villars contributed to this article.
Write to Ian Talley at [email protected]
Source : WSJ