White House officials are privately hailing the May 14 Camp David summit between President Barack Obama and leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council as a major step forward towards finalizing a P5+1 deal with Iran over its nuclear program. According to White House aides, President Obama personally presented a blunt and compelling argument to the GCC leaders that a verifiable nuclear deal with Iran will increase regional stability, and open the door for internal reforms in Tehran that will be beneficial to the entire region.
In return for what the White House believes is GCC quiet support for the final phase of the negotiations with Iran, President Obama pledged to assist the GCC states in obtaining the same nuclear energy technologies, including enrichment, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), that Iran will be permitted, if a deal is reached. However, the President also made clear that he would oppose Gulf States importing nuclear technologies and personnel from Pakistan, which is a nuclear weapons state. That caveat was particularly aimed at intelligence reports that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan already have an agreement for a “Pakistani nuclear umbrella” against Iran if the P5+1 deal is signed.
In his personal briefings to the Gulf leaders, Obama presented a more comprehensive itemization of all the details that have been worked out so far with Iran, to assure total access to all suspected nuclear sites, and measures that will be taken to assure against any Iranian nuclear weapons break-out. The fact that President Obama, not aides, delivered that detailed briefing, was intended by the White House to demonstrate the President’s personal commitment to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon—and that he was personally on top of the entire process. “We showed the Arab leaders that Obama was not an idiot on the nuclear negotiations,” one official commented privately.
The President, according to the White House aides, made a compelling case that the United States is ready to walk away from the P5+1 deal if it fails to meet the strict enforcement demands. He made clear that he knows that if Iran signs a weak deal and is able to cheat, it will set the region on a course of a nuclear arms race that will jeopardize American interests.
The President also made, what he considered, a strong case that the United States is not planning to make any “grand bargain” with Iran to the detriment of the GCC nations, and that the Administration is well aware of Iran’s role in conducting asymmetric warfare throughout the region and beyond. Washington will maintain all terrorism sanctions against Iran.
At the same time, Obama shared recent US Intelligence Community (USIC) estimates that the conflicts in Syria and Lebanon are draining resources from Hezbollah, that Hezbollah has suffered heavy casualties, and is now on a propaganda offensive to conceal the damage.
In making the case that the US is not abandoning its GCC allies, President Obama pledged expedited advanced weapons sales to the GCC states, pledged to establish an American advisory board for the creation of a GCC Rapid Deployment Force, and pledged an American-GCC joint missile defense system, directed against Iran and its surrogates. President Obama made clear that the US will provide the GCC states with a security umbrella, in partnership with France and Britain, against any external threats. The inclusion of France was significant, given France’s hard-line stance in the P5+1 talks, and President Hollande’s recent participation in the GCC heads of state meeting just prior to Camp David.
However, prior to the summit at Camp David, American officials already made clear that the US was not about to sign a binding “NATO-style” treaty with the GCC, with an Article 5 “common defense” commitment to intervene militarily.
President Obama used the occasion of the private talks to deliver some blunt comments on the situations in Syria and Yemen. While the US and the GCC shared a common assessment that Syrian President Bashar Assad must be removed from power, Obama made clear that Washington views the rise of ISIL, the Nusra Front and other jihadist groups, as a grave threat to regional stability, and does not share the GCC view that the first priority is the removal of Assad.
The President also referenced reports that he has personally received, from close friends in US human rights organizations, about the widespread civilian casualties from the Saudi bombings in Yemen. He also noted that the level of anti-Shi’ite rhetoric coming from some leading Saudi clerics was disturbing to him, citing recent speeches by Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, just prior to the Camp David summit.
One White House aide emphasized that “eighty percent of the discussion at Camp David” would be kept from the media. The real question, however, is if the Gulf Arab leaders, who were in on the Camp David discussions, share President Obama’s upbeat assessment, that the summit resolved many points of conflict, and deepened the Washington-GCC alliance.