Obama's Turn to Pay Back the Gulf States

Let's make a deal?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

No matter how the White House describes it, President Barack Obama's meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia last week was about payback. The Saudis gave Obama what he wanted: a (tepid) endorsement of his nuclear pact with Iran. Now they and their Persian Gulf neighbors are looking for some concrete assurances that the deal won't imperil their safety.

Salman was a notable no-show when Obama had Gulf-state leaders to Camp David in May to sell them on the Iran deal. Those who did come pressed the president for a formal security treaty committing the U.S. to come to their defense if they were attacked. Obama demurred, as he had to: The U.S. is rightly wary of such binding deals, which would have to be approved by Congress. Instead, Obama gave vague reassurances of support and promised increased arms sales.

Now that the Iran deal looks certain to make it past a congressional vote of disapproval, Obama can afford to be more forthcoming. There are several ways for him to assuage the leaders' fears that the U.S. is abandoning them.

First, the U.S. could give the Gulf states a promise of "extended deterrence," similar to the nuclear umbrella provided to Europe during the Cold War. This would not be a promise to respond in kind if Iran or another hostile party did the unthinkable and used nuclear weapons against them -- the U.S. has adequate conventional weaponry capable of a devastating response that alone should deter the Iranians from doing anything stupid. It's an agreement that Obama could probably make without congressional approval, and one that Hillary Clinton brought up as secretary of state in 2009.

The second thing Obama could do is to pledge to provide the overall architecture for a missile-defense system against Iranian aggression. The U.S. is currently cooperating with several Gulf states in the building of isolated anti-missile systems to protect targets in their nations. This is no way to build a safety net. Rather, a single system is needed for the entire region, and only the U.S. can provide it. Key to this shield will be providing more up-to-date defense technologies in the U.S. arsenal, such as a land-based version of the Navy's Aegis combat system.

The president could also offer other advanced weaponry that is currently not available to the Arab states, such as so-called bunker-buster bombs that could penetrate Iran's underground facilities. Nothing the U.S. agrees to, however, should violate its policy of ensuring that the "qualitative military edge" in the region lies with Israel -- which also happens to support Arab efforts to contain Iran.

Last, the president needs to publicly and privately reassure Salman that neither the outreach to Iran nor the administration's desire to "pivot" to Asia represent a lessening of the U.S. commitment to Middle East security. This is a case in which words of support can have a tangible effect, especially among the Gulf leaders prone to conspiracy theories about U.S. abandonment.

The U.S. is taking a giant leap of faith with its nuclear pact with Iran. It owes the Gulf states some measure of reassurance for taking that leap along with it.  

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.