President Barack Obama is spending much of two days trying to reassure apprehensive Persian Gulf allies that his strategy of negotiating with Iran and defusing myriad regional conflicts won’t leave them vulnerable.
Leaders of the six Sunni-led states in the Gulf Cooperation Council are concerned about Shiite-led Iran’s intervention in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other hot spots. They want assurances from Obama that the U.S. won’t turn its back on them as it pursues a deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials have tamped down expectations for the meetings, indicating that any formal defense treaties or new U.S. weapons sales aren’t the focus.
Four of the six Gulf countries sent deputies rather than heads of state to the meetings. In some cases that’s because their rulers are in poor health, but for others it may be a signal of discontent. Before heading off to an all-day session at Camp David on Thursday, Obama met with the deputy prime minister and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, whose king canceled at the last minute, and welcomed the rest of the delegations for a private dinner at the White House.
“This gives us an opportunity to discuss some of the bilateral issues, including the crisis in Yemen and how we can build on the cease-fire that’s been established,” Obama said at the start of his Oval Office discussion on Wednesday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Obama announced the summit last month as the U.S. and five other world powers unveiled the framework of a nuclear agreement with Iran. The prospect of such a deal, which would roll back some financial sanctions on Iran, has alarmed U.S. allies in the region. The purpose of the gathering at the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David is in part to calm those concerns.
“They just want to hear that we’re there and that we care,” Rob Malley, the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region, told reporters this week. “That’s what Camp David is actually going to do.”
Obama must also take care not to upset Israel with whatever promises he makes to the Arab states. U.S. law requires that Middle East weapons deals can’t erode the “qualitative military edge” Israel enjoys over its rivals.
The war against Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, and several regional conflicts also hang in the balance.
In Yemen, where Saudi-led airstrikes targeting Houthi rebels have exacerbated a growing humanitarian crisis, the administration welcomed a five-day cease-fire that began this week.
Despite U.S. assurances, the Gulf leaders will probably leave the summit unsatisfied, said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. The meeting’s significance was waning even before King Salman of Saudi Arabia and other heads of state announced they would not attend.
“It’s a form of relationship management,” Wehrey said in a briefing. “I don’t think we can provide the sort of reassurance that will really satiate the Gulf.”
Administration officials said the meetings will conclude with a document outlining new security commitments by the U.S. and the Gulf nations -- Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
The U.S. will offer further assistance as the countries combat terrorism and guard against Iranian aggression, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. New cybersecurity initiatives, military training exercises and ballistic missile defense enhancements will be announced, Rhodes said.
In an interview with Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Obama said the U.S. is “prepared to use all elements of our power” to ensure free navigation in regional waterways. The U.S. sent additional warships to the region last month after Iran seized a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel.
The White House has indicated that weapons deals -- including the sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets coveted by Gulf allies -- wouldn’t be the best response to Iran’s threats.
“The conventional weapons sales is something that many people focus on, but they’re really not adapted to either the terrorist threat or some of the other threats that the region faces today,” Malley said.
Obama and the Gulf representatives on Thursday will travel to Camp David in Maryland for all-day meetings to include Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan.
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