Obama pledges more military aid to reassure Persian Gulf allies on Iran deal

CAMP DAVID, Md. — President Obama on Thursday offered Saudi Arabia and smaller Arab states new support to defend against potential missile strikes, maritime threats and cyberattacks from Iran, calling his commitment to their security “ironclad” in an effort to allay fears that a nuclear accord will empower Tehran, their main rival in the Middle East.

But in a daylong meeting here, Mr. Obama stopped short of offering a formal defense pact that would obligate the United States to come to the nations’ aid if they were attacked. Instead, he tried to reassure them that he was serious about bolstering their security and willing to help them counter Iran.

“I am reaffirming our ironclad commitment to the security of our gulf partners,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference at the wooded presidential retreat here after seeing off the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, who had attended a day of private meetings here.

But he went on to issue a carefully worded pledge that was far less robust than the mutual defense treaty that the gulf nations had sought. He said aggression against their countries would bring a readiness “to work with our G.C.C. partners to urgently determine what actions may be appropriate,” including the potential use of force.

Mr. Obama also sought to assuage the fears of Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in the group that say that lifting oil and financial sanctions on Iran, as called for in the framework of a nuclear deal, would allow Iran to expand its influence from Iraq to Syria to Yemen. The president played down the threat, saying that no sanctions would be lifted unless Tehran complied with the stringent terms of the deal, that sanctions had already devastated Iran’s economy and that, in any case, “most of the destabilizing activity that Iran engages in is low-tech, low-cost activity.”

“It’s not to deny the concerns that were there about what happens when sanctions are reduced,” Mr. Obama said after the meeting with top officials from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “But it was to emphasize that what matters more is the things that we can do now to ensure that some of this destabilizing activity is no longer taking place.”

In a series of working sessions and a lunch on Thursday, Mr. Obama and members of his cabinet — including Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, the lead negotiators with Iran — gave the leaders and representatives of the gulf council a detailed briefing about the status of the nuclear negotiations.

The administration argued that the deal, if completed by the June 30 deadline, would ultimately make the gulf countries and the region safer by preventing Iran from creating a nuclear weapon in the next 10 to 15 years. After that, many of the restrictions on Iran would be lifted, one of the main reasons that Arab leaders have objected to the deal.

Mr. Obama also outlined what a senior official called an “extensive program” of military cooperation between the United States and gulf nations, including assistance with a regional program to defend against Iranian missiles, increased collaboration on maritime security and more joint training exercises.

Most of the new commitments involve helping the gulf nations develop their own defenses, rather than furnishing American weapons or other military resources. Mr. Obama said the United States would help create an early-warning capability for a regional missile defense system that the nations said they would develop.

But in the joint statement agreed upon by Mr. Obama and the gulf officials on Thursday, there was no mention of another potential risk raised by the negotiations with Iran: the possibility that a completed agreement could prompt Saudi Arabia or other nations in the region to enhance their own nuclear capabilities. The Saudis have said they will match whatever nuclear enrichment capability Iran is allowed to keep under the agreement. That has raised fears of an “enrichment race” that could ultimately lead to an arms race.

With the type of agreement being sought by Mr. Obama and international allies, “there will be no need to see the type of regional arms race that would make an already volatile part of the world that much more unstable and insecure,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters.

Mr. Obama was walking a fine line in pledging help to the Arab states. He knew he could not guarantee their security, as the United States does for Japan and South Korea; nor could he pledge to come to their aid if called, as America does for members of NATO. Yet providing more military goods and some training seems to merely extend existing arrangements.

When President George W. Bush faced this problem more than a decade ago with Pakistan, he invited the country’s president at the time, Pervez Musharraf, to Camp David and designated the country a “major non-NATO ally,” a status created by Congress in 1989. (In the Middle East, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Kuwait are “major non-NATO allies.”) But administration officials said that would probably not work in the case of many of the Arab states, whose human rights records are often questionable and whose capabilities vary greatly. Nor was Mr. Obama prepared to say that the region is covered by the American nuclear “umbrella,” a concept from the Cold War.

The roster of officials present reflected the dampened expectations for the gathering, to which only two of the six gulf nations sent their top leaders. The absence of King Salman of Saudi Arabia attracted particular attention because the leaders of his majority-Sunni country are increasingly uneasy about the prospect of a nuclear deal with Shiite-led Iran, which they fear would free Tehran to further exert its influence in the region.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister, who met with Mr. Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday, attended the meeting instead.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia said after the day’s final session that his country would welcome a deal that deprived Iran of nuclear weapons capability, but that it was not clear yet whether the final agreement would achieve that.

“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,” Mr. Jubeir said.

This article was written by Julie Hirschfeld & David E. Sanger for The New York Times on May 14, 2015. David E. Sanger is chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. Mr. Sanger has reported from New York, Tokyo and Washington, covering a wide variety of issues surrounding foreign policy, globalization, nuclear proliferation and Asian affairs.