President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he would streamline weapon sales and increase joint military exercises with Persian Gulf allies as part of an “iron-clad commitment” that the United States will help protect them against their neighbor and rival Iran.
“I was very explicit that the United States will stand by our…partners against external attacks,” Obama said as he stood among the leaders after a series of meetings with leaders at Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat. “We want to make sure this is not just a photo-op, but a concrete series of steps.”
The Gulf nations have been clamoring for specific and aggressive action from the United States since it and five other world powers announced the framework of a deal last month to limit Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The Gulf Cooperation Council nations that attended the Camp David meeting – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – worry that Iran’s already growing influence in the region would grow even more after its economy improved without sanctions. Just this week, Iranian patrol boats fired on a Singapore vessel in the Strait of Hormuz, according to news reports.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the leaders spoke about how to counter Iran’s “negative involvement in the region,” but said that the discussions did not focus on any specific negotiations.
“We were assured that the objective is to deny Iran the ability to have a nuclear weapon, and that all pathways to a nuclear weapon will be closed,” he told reporters. “We will follow the talks and see before we can judge in terms of whether or not the Iranians will do what it takes to reach a deal.”
At least three of the nations have been pressing the United States for a permanent treaty to formalize and expand the U.S. commitment to protect them from external aggression, an idea first introduced in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. U.S. officials have told the nations repeatedly that they would not agree to that.
“The most important part of all of this is we do not see eye-to-eye with many of our allies on precisely what would constitute the kind of Iranian aggression that would spark an American reaction,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Some of the nations have questioned if Iran would actually comply with the agreement to curb its ability to develop nuclear weapons.
“No matter what equipment or systems the United States is willing to sell to its Arab partners, no matter what aid it is willing to provide, no matter what U.S. assets the administration is prepared to base in the region – our partners are looking for a different kind of reassurance,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center on Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, a left-leaning think tank said in recent testimony before Congress.
In an agreement released after the meetings, the leaders said they would commit to develop region-wide ballistic missile defense capability, military exercises and training, arms transfer and maritime security measures. Specific details were not released.
Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said the Gulf nations welcome the nuclear deal. “We hope at the same time that this will be a key factor for stability in the region,” he said.
The Republican National Committee mocked the “no-show summit,” saying Obama faces “an embarrassing snub and a blow to his foreign policy.”
Though the meeting was billed as a summit – a meeting of top leaders – only two of the six Gulf counties send their top leaders, Qatar and Kuwait.
Two of the six nations – the United Arab Emirates and Oman – already had been expected to send others in their place because of health reasons. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman had officially accepted the White House invitation, but at the last minute he said he decided to stay home to oversee a five-day cease-fire in the bombing campaign against rebels in Yemen. Bahrain’s king was expected instead to join British Queen Elizabeth this week at a horse show near London.
Adil Najam, an international relations professor and dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, said the leaders sent a “powerful message” to Washington with their absence. “It would have been much better if they had chosen to accept the invitation and then delivered their message in person,” he said.
Some analysts said the cancellations were meant to signal displeasure with Obama over the April 2 signing of a framework nuclear deal. Leaders of the nations and the United States downplayed the change in plans.