Mnuchin to Travel to Saudi Arabia to Reinforce Ties, Despite Uproar Over Khashoggi Killing

JERUSALEM — Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said on Sunday in Jerusalem that he would travel to the Saudi Arabian capital this week despite the international uproar over the killing of a dissident journalist, in an effort to reinforce ties at a time when the United States is seeking to ratchet up pressure on Iran.

He defended to decision to visit his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, saying that the economic and strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was too important to be cast aside.

The trip to Riyadh comes as Saudi Arabia is facing intense global backlash over the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who lived in Virginia. The Trump administration is under pressure to deliver a forceful response, but President Trump has been slow to acknowledge intelligence showing that Mr. Khashoggi was brutally murdered.

Mr. Trump has been criticized as putting his country’s economic relationship with Saudi Arabia ahead of human rights, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress have urged him to give an assertive response to Saudi Arabia.

Last week, Mr. Mnuchin became one of the final high-profile attendees to withdraw from an investor conference, described as “Davos in the Desert,” that begins in Riyadh on Tuesday, ultimately determining that it would be inappropriate to be mingling with global business leaders weeks after Mr. Khashoggi was killed and believed to have been dismembered in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

But Mr. Mnuchin said on Sunday, “We have an important relationship with Saudi, focused on combating terrorist financing and focused on our common interests of stopping Iran’s spread of both terrorism and other issues. I am going to go there and meet with my counterparts and continue to focus on what’s in the Treasury’s domain, as it relates to this issue.”

He added, “I did not think it was appropriate to go and speak at the conference.”

Mr. Mnuchin planned to visit the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, which the United States leads with Saudi Arabia, and meet with the Saudi finance minister, the energy minister and other economic officials in Riyadh.

In Israel, the Treasury secretary was on the first stop of a six-country trip through the Middle East focused on the battle against terrorist financing. Earlier on Sunday, he met with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to discuss joint efforts to corral Iran.

The United States withdrew from the multicountry Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, this year, and sanctions against Iran are to be reimposed next month. That has made preserving strong ties with Saudi Arabia even more important, as the United States is relying on the Saudis to increase oil production to make up for lost access to Iranian oil.

The Trump administration said it would wait for the conclusion of a Saudi investigation to yield more information about what had happened to Mr. Khashoggi, who Saudi Arabia has said was killed after a fight at the consulate — an explanation that drew international skepticism and condemnation from Western nations.

Mr. Mnuchin said it was important to wait for more facts to emerge before determining if Saudi Arabia should face sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act and added that it was “premature” to even discuss sanctions at this point.

The prospect of the United States imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia has raised concern that the country could slow oil production in retaliation. Mr. Mnuchin said, however, that he had no reason to believe that Saudi Arabia would not honor its oil-production commitments.

Despite the global outrage at Saudi Arabia, Mr. Mnuchin said he did not intend to scold his Saudi counterparts about rights abuses.

“I’m sure I’ll be speaking with the president before I go there,” he said. “If he has a message that he wants me to deliver, I will obviously deliver it. That is not the focus of my trip.”

Mr. Mnuchin did describe what happened to Mr. Khashoggi as a “terrible situation” and said that the United States would not go easy on countries that violate human rights even if they have close economic ties.

“I think the human rights issues are very important issues, and I think that the United States needs to play a leadership role on human rights,” he said.