Obama administration officials are promising a major strengthening of U.S. defense commitments to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies, possibly including a nuclear commitment to their security, in an intensifying effort to win their support for the proposed nuclear deal with Iran.
Officials say they hope to reassure nervous gulf Arab states by providing more military aid and training to their defense forces, and by making more explicit commitments to help them repel external attacks.
The administration is studying whether to make any nuclear assurances, though officials emphasize no decision has been made.
The White House has invited leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman — to the presidential retreat at Camp David in coming weeks, though the date is not confirmed. U.S. officials are expected to make public new security arrangements at the meeting.
The administration’s goal, officials said Tuesday, is to convince the Arab monarchies that U.S. security guarantees will make them safer than if they buy sensitive technology or a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, a Sunni Muslim ally, as the Saudis have privately threatened to do.
The White House is weighing separate new commitments to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown no sign of tempering his fierce criticism of a deal that would ease economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for verifiable limits on its ability to enrich uranium or conduct most other nuclear work for at least 10 years.
Negotiators from six world powers and Iran have set a June 30 deadline to try to complete the proposed accord. But the details released when the framework for the agreement was announced Thursday unsettled the Persian Gulf monarchies that have been core U.S. allies for 70 years, as well as Israel.
The monarchies see themselves as Tehran’s chief regional rivals and fear that the nuclear deal signals an American “pivot to Persia” that would empower Shiite Muslim Iran and leave the Sunni Arab states at a disadvantage.
President Obama took pains in several interviews to try to allay those fears.
“We’re going to be there for our [Persian Gulf] friends,” Obama told columnist Thomas Friedman. “I want to see how we can formalize that a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.”
With much of the Middle East torn by civil war or other upheavals, the oil-rich gulf monarchies remain crucial U.S. allies.
Several have joined the U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. The U.S., in turn, has provided intelligence and logistic support to the Saudi-led coalition bombing rebel forces in Yemen who are backed by Iran.
Strengthening U.S. relations with the gulf states “is a big deal — it’s got to be one of the central components of the U.S. strategy after the Iran deal,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official now at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Goldenberg compared the White House outreach to the way the Nixon administration worked to bolster security ties to Japan and Taiwan after opening relations with China, their main regional rival, in 1972.
But the Obama administration faces unique challenges.
The Saudis especially have been disappointed with Obama’s approach to the Middle East. They see themselves battling Iran in a sectarian war raging across Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, and fear easing of the economic sanctions in a nuclear deal could reinvigorate Iran’s economy and make it even more of a regional threat.
Saudi officials have made clear that they don’t want a public battle with Washington, and on Monday issued cautious statements of support for the framework. “We hope there will be a deal based on the principles that the U.S. government has articulated to us,” Adel Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, told reporters.
But privately, many Saudi officials say they are skeptical that the deal will stop Tehran from eventually developing nuclear weapons because the restrictions it would impose are not permanent.
“The regime will sit and wait for 10 or 15 years to pass and it will restore its nuclear activities legally and legitimately,” said Mustafa Alani, a security studies scholar at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai who is close to the kingdom’s rulers.
Such concerns have been expressed privately to the Obama administration through the region’s embassies, Alani said. The aim isn’t to torpedo an eventual agreement. “We believe a diplomatic solution is better than any other solution, military or more economic sanctions,” he said.
One challenge for the White House is whether it can expand a defense relationship that already is enormous. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, and the Pentagon keeps 35,000 troops, two aircraft carrier task forces, cyber warfare specialists, drone aircraft units and more in the region. The United States and Saudi Arabia are in the middle of a 20-year, $60-billion arms deal.
It’s also not clear that U.S. nuclear security commitments would be useful or welcomed by the gulf states.
The administration would have a hard time trying to get Congress, which has been skeptical about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, to enact a treaty that put a U.S. nuclear “umbrella” over Arab Sunni nations, as the United States has over Japan and South Korea.
Such agreements aim to deter nuclear attack by warning foes that the United States would retaliate with overwhelming force if an ally is attacked with a nuclear weapon.
The administration might try to adopt the policy by administrative action to end-run Congress. But the gulf states might not welcome a public statement to guarantee their safety. Because of domestic anger at the United States, these governments have long been leery of being too publicly aligned with Washington.
“They want an American security blanket, but without us having to shout about it,” said Simon Henderson, a Persian Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a public policy group in Washington.
U.S. officials say they may try to persuade the Saudis to sign a so-called 1-2-3 agreement, which gives countries special U.S. help building a civilian nuclear power industry as long as they accept restrictions to prevent development of a nuclear weapons program. But analysts said the Saudis probably would not agree because, at least in theory, it would give them less freedom to pursue a nuclear program someday than the Iranians.
Another possible gesture would be to declare the gulf states “major non-NATO allies,” said Thomas Lippman, a Saudi specialist at the nonpartisan Middle East Institute in Washington. The designation, applied to close allies like Japan, Australia and Israel, provides special help in buying weapons and obtaining U.S. weapons.