Gulf Allies’ Doubts Over Iran Policy to Dominate Obama’s Summit

President Barack Obama will face six Persian Gulf allies disenchanted with his policies at a summit next week, worried especially that he’s gone soft on Iran.

The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman -- are coming to the White House and Camp David alarmed about a prospective nuclear deal with Iran and troubled by what they see as Obama’s tepid responses to regional turmoil fueled in part by the Islamic Republic.

There is a “very deep lack of trust” in this administration “after six years of empty promises, hesitation, indecisiveness” in response to the region’s crises, said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva.

The Sunni-led Gulf states see a nuclear deal shifting the balance of regional power in favor of Shiite Iran as economic sanctions are lifted, and they have grown uncertain about the U.S. role as their security guarantor.

After a White House dinner on May 13, Obama’s talks the next day with the Gulf monarchs at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland, may prove difficult given their misgivings about U.S. responses to challenges in the oil-rich region.

Gulf leaders “really are of the belief that the Obama administration, for one reason or another, has mismanaged these crises by employing a wrong approach, or a half-hearted approach, and this bizarre U.S. doctrine of leading from behind or showing strategic patience,” Zaid Belbagi, a specialist on Gulf Cooperation Council relations at the Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum, said from Riyadh.

‘Red Line’

Arab apprehension about Obama has been growing for years, fueled by his decision to abandon President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, tepid support for moderate Syrian rebels and the president ignoring his own “red line” against chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria.

“There’s some tension and certainly higher expectations than the U.S. can or should deliver” in cases such as Syria, said Marcelle Wahba, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.A.E. who’s president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

The agenda for the 10 hours of talks at Camp David will focus largely on the near- and medium-term Iranian threat -- including the implications of a nuclear deal -- and what agreements may be possible to strengthen security ties, according to U.A.E. Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba.

That puts the burden on Obama to try to mitigate the Gulf leaders’ concerns through political and security assurances, as well as weapons sales and increased military-to-military cooperation.

Missile Defenses

“In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security,” according to Al Otaiba, who said his country has pressed the White House to hold such a summit for four years. “Today we need something in writing, we need something institutionalized.”

The U.S. already is working with the Gulf allies on ballistic missile defenses, both individually and toward a collective system covering all the Gulf Arab territories. Several have Raytheon Co.’s Patriot anti-missile systems, and the U.A.E. has purchased the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system built by Lockheed Martin Corp.

The summit reflects something of a disconnect: For the U.S., it’s about selling the terms of a nuclear deal. For the Gulf leaders, it’s about strengthening a common front to contain Iran’s conventional threat.

Secret Agenda

“If you talk to most of the GCC countries, they will tell you they are more concerned about Iran’s behavior than they are about whether it’s allowed 5,000 or 10,000 centrifuges,” said Al Otaiba, who spoke Thursday on a panel at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

What most worries the Sunni leaders of the Gulf States, according to analysts, is their suspicion that the U.S. has a secret agenda of seeking a grand bargain with Iran. Obama has repeatedly said he hopes Iran will become less troublesome, though he defends a nuclear deal as worthwhile regardless of whether they do.

The suspicions are fed by dissatisfaction over Syria, where the U.S. is concentrating on fighting Islamic State rather than the Iranian-backed Assad regime. That has fed a narrative in Sunni Arab states that the U.S. is giving Iran a pass in Syria to avoid actions that might disrupt the nuclear diplomacy.

Containing Iran

The Gulf leaders see Iran “virtually controlling Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and grasping for power almost everywhere else,” according to Jon Alterman, senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“They fear that an Iran unhampered by sanctions will be even more aggressive,” Alterman wrote in a commentary this week.

The Gulf allies will want specific assurances that a nuclear deal won’t draw the U.S. “away from its traditional containment of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions,” according to former U.S ambassador to Iraq and Turkey James Jeffrey, now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Like Israel, the Gulf states question whether Iran will abide by any nuclear deal, particularly once some provisions expire in 10 to 15 years.

That has led to talk in the region that the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, will assert rights to activities that could provide them a path to nuclear weapons and make plans to illicitly buy nuclear weapons from a state such as Pakistan. The U.S. wants a security structure that will avert a nuclear arms race in the region.

Personal Attention

Gathering with the Gulf leaders at the presidential retreat gives them the personal attention that’s expected in Arab diplomacy, said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. They are “used to personal access, hand-holding, the kind of chumminess that President Obama hasn’t really engaged in with anyone,” he said.

The talks at Camp David will give Obama a chance to make the case for the nuclear deal as effectively thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The meeting’s purpose is to work with the Gulf States to expand their air and missile defenses, critical infrastructure protection and cyberdefenses, Vice President Joe Biden said in a March 30 speech.

A priority should be to accelerate development of a regional security architecture, said Derek Chollet, a former Defense Department official who is now at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. That would cover elements such as missile defense, maritime security, and cybersecurity, he said.

The nuclear deal wouldn’t affect Iran’s missile program, one of the objections raised by the Gulf states and Israel.

“Even if Iran never moves forward with nuclear-armed missiles, it is seeking to develop precision-guided conventional missiles that can attack key military, civil, infrastructure, and petroleum targets,” according to a report this month by Abdullah Toukan, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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