- Iranian arms shipments, missile program alarm U.S. allies
- Disputes between U.S. and Arab states `overblown,' Obama says
President Barack Obama said that the U.S. would help Persian Gulf Arab states wary of rising Iranian influence in the Mideast to improve their military capabilities and adapt their economies to lower oil prices.
"None of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran," Obama said in a statement in Riyadh, at a summit of six Arab countries including Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council announced on Thursday modest steps to strengthen regional security, including increased cooperation on cybersecurity and ballistic missile defenses. The agreement is an attempt to reassure Gulf Arab leaders that the U.S. is not improving ties with Iran at their expense or withdrawing from regional relationships.
Obama called disagreements between the U.S. and its Arab allies "overblown," in a news conference after his statement, and said last year’s international deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program would not have been achieved without the cooperation council’s support. The world’s largest economy is also weaning itself from Mideast oil, raising questions about the value of continued U.S. intervention in the region.
"When we entered into negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal there was concern that in the interest of getting a deal done we would somehow look the other way with respect to other destabilizing activities," Obama said in the news conference.
"We recognize collectively that we continue to have serious concerns about Iranian behavior," Obama said in his statement, including "illegal" arms shipments to Syria and a ballistic missile program it continues to develop despite the nuclear deal.
In interviews published this month by The Atlantic magazine, the president complained about U.S. allies he called "free riders" who he believes don’t contribute enough to international military and humanitarian missions. Many people in Saudi Arabia, including members of the royal family, interpreted the remark as a reference to their country. Obama also said the Saudis must "share" their region with Iran, and was reported describing the U.S. relationship with the kingdom as "complicated."
U.S. officials said Obama did not apologize for his remarks in a candid meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday. The aides described the discussion as productive, and said disagreements with the Saudis over Iran and the use of military force in the region were minor.
On Thursday, Obama said new agreements on maritime and special operation capabilities would provide substantive support to the Gulf states, including Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
The countries pledged to help rebuild infrastructure in areas of Iraq reclaimed from Islamic State. Declining oil prices have limited Iraq’s ability both to fight the militant group and rebuild in areas it has occupied. Obama said the U.S. would begin a "new high-level economic dialogue" with the Arab states to discuss their adjustment to lower oil prices.
The president also said that he and his Gulf counterparts had discussed how to best take advantage of fragile cease-fires in Yemen and Syria. Civil wars in the two countries are to some extent proxy battles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposite sides. The U.S. hopes that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states can contribute more resources to the fight against Islamic State as the war in Yemen winds down.
The Syrian cease-fire is "under tremendous strain including continued violations" by the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Obama said.