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Iran diplomacy challenges Obama to reassure Gulf allies

Analysis: Camp David summit is designed to assuage GCC fears of US support despite fears of an Iranian threat

President Barack Obama may have hoped to gather the leaders of all the U.S.-allied Arab monarchies who make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at Camp David on Thursday, but only two of the six invited nations, Qatar and Kuwait, are sending their heads of state.

The most significant no-show will be Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz. The king’s decision to send his crown prince and deputy crown prince instead is made more notable by the fact that the White House previously announced that Salman would be present.

The change in Riyadh’s delegation has been widely interpreted as a signal of Saudi displeasure at the Obama administration’s Iran policy.

The downgrading of attendance by some of the Gulf leaders (Bahrain also changed its representation, and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Oman are staying away because of ongoing health issues) “is an illustration of the lack of trust that exists with the Obama administration,” said Joseph Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

The White House wants to use the summit to reassure Gulf Arab leaders that their security will not be compromised by the proposed nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran. But many of Obama’s guests are convinced that despite a possible deal meant to limit Tehran’s nuclear program, Iran would still be on course to become a nuclear-armed state, if on a delayed schedule.

“They cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran,” Kechichian said of the GCC members.

The consensus among international intelligence agencies remains that Iran has not made any decision to build nuclear weapons, despite paying a heavy price in sanctions to acquire civilian nuclear technology that could be repurposed for military goals.

Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council under three U.S. presidents, questions the Gulf states’ characterization of Iran, saying, “We’ve been hearing for years how [the GCC] was terrified that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon, and now we are basically precluding that they will get a nuclear weapon … basically indefinitely.”

The Gulf leaders, he added, are “pretending somehow that Iran is coming to attack them.”

On May 7, the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, said the GCC would seek a “security guarantee,” given Iran’s behavior in the region and the rising threat of extremism. “In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security. I think today we need something in writing.”

Sick questioned the GCC countries’ assertions that a rising Iran is a threat, saying that what the Gulf leaders are “really upset about is that Iran is getting recognition as a more influential state in the region, that it’s a voice to be heard, that there is an actual shift in the balance of power in the region.”

Still, the GCC is far from a unified bloc, and its six members have been unequally affected by the Arab uprisings. Each pursues its own foreign policies, and there are no set-in-stone regulations governing relations among them.

Oman, for example, hosted talks between Iran and the West, a mediating role the country’s leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has played for the last decade.

Qatar and Iran share the largest natural gas deposit in the world. Iran’s occupation since the early 1970s of three UAE islands (Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs) has made for a tense relationship between Dubai and Tehran, but the UAE hosts significant Iranian diaspora communities.

The GCC was established in 1981 when Gulf countries supported Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran. Its members host the region’s largest U.S. military bases, where more than 35,000 ground, air and naval personnel are stationed. Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar houses more than 10,000 U.S. personnel.

But amid growing concern over reduced U.S. direct involvement in the region, its members last year resolved to set up a more unified command structure and collaborated recently on attacks in Yemen — where GCC countries (minus Oman) are waging war on the rebel Houthi movement, which they view as an Iranian proxy.

For its part, the U.S. has sought to ensure that the Gulf states retain a competitive military advantage over Iran. Colin Kahl, the U.S. national security adviser to the vice president, said during a conference call with reporters Monday, to “keep in mind” that the U.S. “moved forward on a package for the Saudis that will provide them the most advanced F-15 aircraft in the region.”

If their spending is measured as a percentage of GDP, the GCC’s member states are the largest customers of the global arms industry.

“Taken as a whole, the GCC last year spent nearly $135 billion on their defense. The Saudis spent more than $80 billion. Taken in comparison, the Iranians spent something like $15 billion on their defense,” Kahl said.

According to the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Iran’s only meaningful leads are in total manpower and artillery.”

To further seek to mollify its Gulf Arab allies, the U.S. may consider strengthening U.S.-GCC defense ties by designating all six countries major non-NATO allies, which would allow for higher military and aid benefits from the United States. Bahrain has enjoyed that designation since 2002 and Kuwait since 2004; the other four do not.

But a U.S. defense pact with all six could be subject to the stability of any one of the countries. Obama has said that the “biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”

In Kechichian’s view, the GCC countries are likely to respond to the Iran nuclear deal by acquiring nuclear technology of their own, prompting an arms race in the Middle East.

But Sick said that such an outcome is far from inevitable and that the U.S. needs to persuade the GCC that the new political realities of the region do not pose a significant danger.

The Gulf has traditionally relied on the U.S. to “keep Iran in a box, and they didn’t have to think about it,” he said. “And now we have let [Iran] out of the box. The countries in the region really didn’t want that to happen.”

That leaves Obama facing the challenge of convincing Gulf allies that while “the world is not going to stay exactly as it was,” Sick said, “the U.S. can manage this change, and it can be managed without a direct threat to [the GCC].”

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