Obama pledges deeper security cooperation with GCC
NEW YORK // US president Barack Obama pledged deeper security cooperation and military assistance for Arab Gulf countries who also collectively announced their support for Washington-led nuclear talks with Iran that lead to a final accord that ‘verifiably’ blocks all pathways to a bomb.
The pledges were made early on Friday morning in a joint statement that capped a rare, day-long summit between Mr Obama and leaders of all six GCC countries at the Camp David presidential retreat.
The US president reaffirmed Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to protecting the Gulf from external aggression and to “address [the] threats” of what he called Iran’s “destabilising activities” across the region and threats from extremist groups.
“Whether we reach a nuclear deal or not with Iran, we’re still going to face a range of threats across the region, including its destabilising activities, as well as the threat from terrorist groups,” Mr Obama said after Gulf leaders departed Camp David. “So we’re going to work together to address these threats. And much of the enhanced security cooperation that I’ve outlined will allow us to do precisely that.”
UAE officials described the summit as a success, and appeared satisfied with the symbolic message it sent underscoring GCC-US ties, which have been strained by Washington’s engagement of their main rival Tehran. Their statements also suggested they will withhold judgement until they can measure what concrete steps the United States actually takes.
“We welcome president Obama’s ‘ironclad’ commitment for the US to defend GCC nations from external threats, and look forward to immediate US steps that will streamline the acquisition of critical defence systems,” said Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba on Friday. “The GCC-US partnership is a pillar of regional security, and the UAE is prepared to invest more in these collective security initiatives.”
The minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, posted a comment to Twitter saying that the summit “was successful in diagnosing common regional challenges and creating the necessary atmosphere and mechanisms to take up these challenges”.
In a joint US-GCC statement following the talks, the allies agreed to further high-level meetings to work on upgrading a number of initiatives that Mr Obama said will help Gulf countries increase their own security capacities to face asymmetric threats, a reference to Iran. These include cyber security and maritime protection, joint military exercises, and special forces training.
The GCC countries also stated their intention to work with the US to further integrate their individual states’ missile defence capabilities, in line with long-standing US desires. Washington will also accelerate weapons sales to Gulf countries and work with them to develop an early warning system for their missile defences once they have been integrated.
“A key purpose of bolstering the capacity of our GCC partners is to ensure that our partners can deal with Iran politically, diplomatically, from a position of confidence and strength,” Mr Obama said.
The US president had arranged the talks to try to gain backing from sceptical Arab Gulf countries for an Iran nuclear deal. The GCC states are primarily concerned that the lifting of economic sanctions will embolden Tehran to project its regional influence in ways they see as deeply destabilising, and are seeking reassurances from a US administration they fear is planning to reduce its traditional presence in the region and attempt to leave in place a balance of power between Iran and Arab countries, which White House officials deny.
The summit focused on strengthening the GCC’s own capabilities and did not result in a mutual defence treaty of the sort Washington has with Japan and South Korea that at least one of the Gulf countries had called for, or with the sale of the most advanced US fighter jet, the F-35, or so-called “bunker busting” bombs.
A defence treaty that guaranteed US intervention would be too difficult to pass through the US congress, one of Mr Obama’s top aides, Ben Rhodes, said, adding that such a move is also complicated by “a very unpredictable region in which threats emanate from very many different places”.
Mr Obama reiterated Washington’s long-standing commitment to come to Gulf countries’ aid in the face of external state aggression, as it did for Kuwait in the first Gulf War. But the joint statement was ambiguous about strictly defining threats and how exactly the US might react.
While Mr Obama emphasised the threat of Iran’s “destabilising activities”, it was clear that the two sides have enduring differences in their perception of the threat posed by Iran.
“The purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalise Iran,” Mr Obama said.
“We welcome an Iran that plays a responsible role in the region — one that takes concrete, practical steps to build trust and resolve its differences with its neighbours by peaceful means, and abides by international rules and norms.”
Mr Obama said his delegation to the summit had addressed Gulf concerns that Tehran would spend income from the potential lifting of sanctions and the unfreezing of billions of dollars in Iranian assets on its proxy and allied forces in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
“We gave them our best analysis of the enormous needs that Iran has internally and the commitment that Iran has made to its people in terms of shoring up its economy,” Mr Obama said.
This view was seen as naive by Gulf observers, however, who were critical of what they saw as the reactive nature of a US position that did not give strategic guidance on either containment or engagement. The US is “not deciding to take a very strong position against Iran nor are [they] trying to have a ‘big boys’ conversation [with Gulf allies] about the region” if the US scales back its posture, said Mishaal Al Gergawi, managing director of the Delma Institute think tank in Abu Dhabi. “What we’re really seeing is tactics, tactics, tactics.”
In stark contrast to Washington’s main Middle East ally, Israel, whose prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alienated himself from the White House in his vocal opposition to the terms of the nuclear deal, the Arab Gulf leaders were much more publicly optimistic that it will block Iran from building a bomb.
“GCC member states also affirmed their strong support for the efforts of the P5+1 to reach a deal with Iran by June 30, 2015, that would verifiably ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, noting that such a deal would represent a significant contribution to regional security,” the joint statement said.
Over the course of three working sessions and a lunch at Camp David, Mr Obama’s cabinet secretaries who have led the negotiations — secretary of state John Kerry and energy secretary Ernest Moniz — briefed Gulf leaders about the details and status of the talks.
“President Obama’s answers on Iran laid to rest many concerns we had” regarding the deal, the GCC’s deputy secretary general for foreign affairs, Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheq, said on Friday.
However, the Saudi foreign minister said that Riyadh was still waiting to see the final terms before taking a position in favour of the accord. “Over the next six weeks the discussions will continue to see if this can be brought about, so it would be too early to prejudge what we accept and we don’t accept because we haven’t seen the final details,” Adel Al Jubeir said after the summit.
Aside from Iran, there were some details in the Camp David joint statement on commitments to help resolve a number of regional crises.
The GCC also agreed to push opposing factions — backed by different GCC countries — in Libya, to find a political solution so that there can be a common focus on battling ISIL, and to “rapidly” transition in Yemen from military action to a political process.
While there was speculation before the talks that the US may agree to deeper involvement in backing Syrian rebels, perhaps with a no-fly zone, there was only more stated backing for moderate rebels and a pledge to help combat extremist groups.
“We have not seen a no-fly zone as being a viable option that can contribute to essentially changing decisively the situation on the ground given the nature of the fighting that’s taking place in urban areas and across the country,” Mr Rhodes said.
Published: May 15, 2015 04:00 AM