CAMP DAVID, Md. — The United States on Thursday reaffirmed its “unequivocal” commitment to use “all elements of power” to secure U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf region and to protect partner nations there against any external aggression.
In a rare visit to his presidential retreat, President Obama met with top officials from six gulf states in the hope of easing tensions that have developed between America and some of its longtime allies after a tentative nuclear deal with Iran, which is seen as a disruptive force in the region.
At the end of the meetings, Obama made clear that he would not sacrifice the chance for a historic diplomatic opening in Iran or delve deeper into to Syrian conflict to assuage the anxieties of gulf leaders.
“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,” the president said. “But I want to be very clear: The purpose of any strategic cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran, or to even marginalize Iran.”
The statements Obama and gulf officials made Thursday, as well as the joint communique they issued, highlighted the tensions inherent in the policy the administration is now pursuing in the Middle East. Obama and three members of his Cabinet made their case for a final agreement on the nuclear issue with Iran, and received a qualified endorsement from members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that a “comprehensive, verifiable” nuclear deal was in the gulf states’ security interests.
Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani told reporters the council “welcomes this [nuclear] agreement, and we hope at the same time that this will be a key factor for stability in the region.”
The leaders also discussed the “interference” of “non-Arab countries in the affairs of the region,” the emir said, referring to Iran.
Still, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir would not say whether his country would sign off on the deal the world’s major powers hope to strike with Iran by the end of June. “We will follow the talks and see before we can judge in terms of whether or not the Iranians will do what it takes to reach a deal,” he said.
The two sides did promise to “work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.” They also agreed to a follow-on summit next year and to establish a more solid structure to implement shared policy positions. The gulf states agreed to U.S.-aided development of a regional ballistic missile defense and early warning system.
Several of the gulf countries have missile defense components, such as short-range Patriot systems, but the administration wants them to install a comprehensive U.S.-produced system that would allow short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missile defense.
Jubeir, the Saudi minister, said the group had “an extremely productive day that followed an extremely productive evening,” when they met for dinner at the White House on Wednesday night.
Obama and other top U.S. officials emphasized that the best way to contain Iran was not through proxy wars but by working, as the president said, “to shore up defenses, improve intelligence, improve the capacity for maritime monitoring of what’s taking place in the gulf.”
Human rights activists said they were disappointed that Obama did not raise concerns about abuses within the gulf countries. “Instead of having the promised tough conversations with gulf leaders, the White House has traded protecting civil societies for closer military ties with their repressive rulers,” Brian Dooley of Human Rights First said.
On Thursday, the sessions were aimed at comforting gulf officials rather than challenging them. The president has used Camp David to host world leaders only once before, when he brought members of the Group of Eight here in 2012.
But only two heads of state — the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar — attended Thursday’s summit, which Obama called for last month at the same time he announced that a “framework” for a final deal with Iran had been reached. The majority of the GCC heads of state chose not to attend, instead dispatching their top deputies. The other members of the GCC are Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
For a president who had called for “a new beginning” between the United States and the Muslim world six years ago, the summit was a reminder of how complicated relations remain. Although the United States is no longer embroiled in two full-scale wars, gulf leaders are pressing for greater American intervention in the Middle East even as they have become increasingly willing to use their own military forces to counter Iran’s influence.
Ilan Goldenberg, who directs the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, described the meeting in an e-mail as “a relatively disappointing outcome. At the end of the day the administration is not willing to take a tougher stand publicly against Iran’s activities in the region, which is what the GCC really wants.”
Although the administration has acknowledged that at least one gulf government had expressed interest in a NATO-like mutual defense treaty with the United States, both the gulf officials and the White House came to the summit acknowledging that is not going to happen.
Gulf leaders also have urged the administration to undertake bolder action in Syria, arguing that if the United States does not move it will leave Washington with little influence in the event opposition fighters, including some allied with al-Qaeda, oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — something the gulf countries consider an increasing likelihood.
A State Department-proposed plan for a safe zone along the Turkish border has been on Obama’s desk since late last year, but he has not given his assent, and White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes indicated that he has no plans to do so. “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,” he said.
Jubeir declined to say what discussions the two sides had on whether to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.
“This was not a session where we said, ‘We want,’ and the U.S. said, ‘We give,’ ” he said, adding it was instead aimed at elevating the U.S.-gulf states’ relationship “to an unprecedented level. And I believe this was achieved.”
DeYoung reported from Washington.