US-Gulf summit: Obama falls back on arms sales to reassure partners on Iran

The summit Thursday may have pointed toward a Middle East where the US stands by its traditional Gulf partners, but also does not block the rise of a more responsible, less destabilizing Iran.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama, center, waves as he stands with, from left, Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan; Bahrain Crown Prince Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalif; Deputy Prime Minister of Oman, Sayyid Fahad Bin Mahmood Al Said; Kuwait's Emir Sheik Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah; Qatar's Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani; Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef; and Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani of Bahrain after their meeting at Camp David in Maryland, Thursday, May 14, 2015.

Neither side in this week’s US-Gulf Arab summit got exactly what it wanted.

That said, there are no signs that the persistent disharmonies between the longtime allies will disrupt the model of support that the United States has developed with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.

President Obama got only a tentative endorsement from his guests of his Iran diplomacy and its centerpiece, the emerging deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The Gulf states had to settle for a restated verbal American commitment to their security going forward rather than the written, NATO-style security pact that some of them had sought.

As for the Gulf Arabs’ hopes of eliciting a deeper US role in the conflict in Syria, Mr. Obama was clear: It isn’t going to happen.

In that sense, the summit at the Camp David presidential compound Thursday may have pointed toward a Middle East where the US stands by its traditional partners but does not block the rise of a more responsible, less destabilizing Iran.

“I believe that the Camp David commitments I have described today could mark the beginning of a new era of cooperation between our countries – a closer, stronger partnership that advances our mutual security for decades to come,” Obama said at the close of a six-hour conversation with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

“But I want to be very clear,” the president added: “The purpose of any strategic cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran, or to even marginalize Iran.”

The White House message appeared to be not that the US is undergoing a policy “realignment” favoring Iran, as some critics have charged, but that American and indeed Gulf Arab interests are best served by encouraging the emergence of a strong but cooperative Iran – a responsible member of the “community of nations,” as Obama likes to say.

In the meantime, Obama said the US can best help the Gulf states counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region not by going head to head with Iran and its proxies in conflicts in Syria and Yemen, but by reinforcing security cooperation.

The US is committed to expanding intelligence and maritime-monitoring cooperation with its Gulf partners, the president said. Specifically, the US committed to helping the Gulf states implement a regional missile defense system.

For critics of the White House approach, Obama has simply fallen back on the traditional means of American support for Gulf states worried about an interventionist Iran: arms sales and provisions of evermore sophisticated weapons systems.

“It’s not diplomacy, it’s an arms fair,” said William Hartung, director of the arms and security project at Washington’s Center for International Policy, about this week’s summit. The US in the first five years of Obama’s presidency transferred more than $64 billion in arms and defense services to GCC countries, said Mr. Hartung in a statement – three fourths of the total going to Saudi Arabia.

Obama had announced his intention to hold a summit with America’s Gulf Arab partners the same day last month that he delivered a statement on the framework agreement reached by world powers with Iran on its nuclear program.

The White House wanted to reassure Gulf leaders about the US commitment to them – that the US was not returning to the kind of Persia-focused policy it had in the days of the shah. In return, the US hoped to get a Gulf signoff on the nuclear deal.

What Obama got instead was a tentative expression of support for a final deal that would verifiably bar Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

Standing next to Obama at Camp David, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said the GCC “welcomes this agreement, and we hope at the same time that this will be a key factor for stability in the region.”

Sounding less enthusiastic, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that while his country welcomes “any deal that stops Iran from having a nuclear capability,” he noted that negotiators have until June 30 to reach a final deal. He cautioned that nothing yet guarantees that “all pathways to a bomb will be closed” to Iran.

“Over the next six weeks, the discussions will continue in order to see if this can be brought about,” Mr. Jubeir said, “so it would be too early to prejudge what we accept and ... don’t accept.”

The summit’s focus on Iran and enhanced security arrangements left some regional analysts frustrated that Obama did not use the opportunity to press the Gulf leaders on what the president has said is perhaps the biggest threat to Gulf stability: official resistance to political, social, and economic reforms.

International rights activists lament what they see as Obama’s failure to convey his publicly stated view that respect for human rights enhances national security – or to confront the Gulf Arabs with their often poor human rights records.

“President Obama says strong civil societies are a matter of national security,” said Brian Dooley, director of Human Rights First’s human rights defenders program, in a statement following the summit. “But when it comes to opportunities to take a decisive step in meetings like this one, human rights concerns get trumped by new military arrangements.”

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