President Barack Obama has opened a summit in the US with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab allies, seeking to convince them of US commitment to their security despite deep concern among Arab leaders about US efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran.
According to Aljazeera, hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for a rare summit on Thursday at the Camp David presidential retreat, Obama faced the challenge of allaying their fears of US disengagement at a time of Middle East upheaval while also pressing the Gulf states to work together in their own defence.
The GCC is comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
In a media briefing, Ben Rhodes, US deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said the leaders discussed the threat to the GCC from Iran, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, besides ongoing regional conflicts in the region, including Syria, Yemen and Libya.
“The president and his team were able to provide an update on the status of the nuclear negotiations … and also Iran’s destabilising actions in the region, which touch upon the security of our GCC partners,” Rhodes said.
He said the US had set out a range of strategies to help the GCC countries deal with Iran.
“We’re looking at what we can do to expedite the provision of support and capacity-building to the GCC in relation to ballistic missiles, maritime security, special operations, counterterrorism and border security,” Rhodes said.
He said Obama had assured the GCC states that the nuclear agreement reached in Lausanne, Swizerland, was limited to Iran’s nuclear programme only and not other issues.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud pulled out early, sending Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his place.
The decision was widely interpreted as a snub that reflected the GCC’s frustration with the Obama administration.
The White House has said such decisions were not intended as slights and has portrayed the summit as more than just a symbolic event.
But US officials have also played down the prospects for any major breakthroughs.
White House officials have said there would no formal defence treaty, as some GCC leaders sought, and that the summit is likely to produce more modest announcements on integrating ballistic-missile defence systems, easing weapons deliveries and increasing joint military exercises.
In an interview to Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane on Wednesday, Rhodes said the US was committed to the defence of the GCC countries but a formal treaty would not happen in the near future.
“A treaty is not what we’re looking for. It took decades to build NATO and the Asian allies but we can provide clear assurances that we will come to their defence,” he said, alluding to a prospective alliance with the GCC members.
Sunni Arab leaders are concerned that lifting Western sanctions as part of a nuclear deal with Shia Iran would empower Iran to act in further destabilizing the region, especially in volatile countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
The Obama administration would like GCC support, or at least a toning-down of any criticism, for the deal to help convince a sceptical US Congress it has broad backing in the region.
Adding weight to Arab concerns, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy fired warning shots over a Singapore-flagged cargo vessel in international waters in the Gulf on Thursday.
The shots prompted the vessel to flee into the UAE’s territorial waters, according to US officials.
Rhodes said the incident highlighted “exactly” why Gulf Arab states were concerned about Iran’s behaviour.