CAMP DAVID, MARYLAND —
President Barack Obama says the United States has an "ironclad" commitment to the security of its Gulf allies and would consider using military force if they were threatened.
Obama hosted a summit of six leaders and senior ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council at the Camp David presidential retreat north of Washington Thursday.
The president said the region is going thorough "extraordinary changes" and "great challenges."
The six Gulf leaders came to the summit looking for reassurances from the president that the U.S. is fully committed to their security.
President Obama Hosts Gulf Leaders at Camp David:
Obama said the U.S. will increase its effort to help the Gulf states meet the full range of threats. This would include more military exercises and assistance in developing missile defense and rapid response capabilities.
The Gulf states have been concerned that a nuclear agreement between their arch rival Iran and major world powers would ease Western sanctions and turn Iran into a more aggressive regional power.
Obama said he is glad that the Gulf leaders are now giving their broad support for a comprehensive and verifiable deal to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon, understanding that this is also in their interest.
But he recognized that Iran could still continue what he calls destabilizing actions in the region even if the nuclear deal is reached by June 30.
Obama and the GCC also promised to strengthen the moderate opposition in Syria, back the humanitarian truce in Yemen, and work for a two-state solution in Israel - although the president said the chances of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians appear "distant" right now.
Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes announced Thursday afternoon that summit members had finished their first working session, which was focused on Iran, and continued their talks during lunch at the U.S. presidential retreat outside Washington.
Rhodes said Gulf Cooperation Council officials seemed to have an understanding of the details of the framework of the Iran talks, including the intrusive inspections and transparency measures that will be in place to ensure Tehran abides by the limitations in the deal and is thus prevented from developing nuclear weapons.
“Because we are committed to their security and because we cooperate on the security and stability of the region, it’s important for them to have an understanding of what the nuclear deal is, and of course, we would welcome their determination that a nuclear deal can contribute to the security of the region,” Rhodes said.
U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes speaking about the summit:
The deputy national security adviser said that another purpose of the summit is to discuss what types of assurances, strategies and capabilities are in place to deal with destabilizing actions in the region.
Many Arab leaders are concerned that any nuclear deal could empower Iran to work in destabilizing ways, boost its regional prestige and weaken U.S. ties with other Gulf states, particularly in military matters.
“We are looking for some form of security guarantee, given the behavior of Iran in the region, given the rise of the extremist threat. We definitely want a stronger relationship,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the U.S., said at an Atlantic Council forum in Washington last week.
On that issue, Obama sought to reassure GCC leaders that the U.S. understood their concerns, Rhodes said.
When asked about any binding agreements with Gulf countries, Rhodes said the United States was not initiating mutual defense treaties with Gulf partners, calling such agreements a “complicated piece of business.”
Instead, he said, the United States will expedite its ability to provide assistance to Gulf countries to build their capacity to deal with “asymmetric threats” related to terrorism, as well as cyber, maritime and border security.
“There will be a clear signal to continue to enhance joint military exercises … helping GCC partners be more interoperable with themselves and with our military. There will be an extensive program coming out of this of cooperation,” Rhodes said.
The administration said it was open to the idea of granting its GCC partners major non-NATO ally status, which would make them eligible for certain kinds of military assistance.
Asked about the potential for a nuclear arms race, Rhodes said none of the Gulf countries present had given indications they would pursue a nuclear program that would raise concerns.
Tehran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The gathering at the presidential retreat about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Washington will also focus on other issues of instability in the Middle East.
Syria on agenda
Obama and Gulf leaders were to discuss strategies for Syria later Thursday, with the White House open to evaluating the option of a no-fly zone to help with the Syrian conflict, Rhodes said. However, he said the measure is not seen as a viable way to address fighting in urban areas.
He also said the White House has not independently verified new reports of chemical weapons use in Syria.
Late Wednesday, Obama hosted leaders from GCC countries Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the U.A.E. during a dinner at the White House.
Earlier in the day, he held talks with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, where he hailed the “extraordinary friendship” between the United States and Saudi Arabia and thanked the kingdom for its help in the fight against the Islamic State militant group.
Saudi FM addresses media
Addressing members of the press shortly after talks, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubein was quick to emphasize the broad range of topic discussed, opening remarks by saying Thursday's meetings "were not about P5+1 talks and Iran nuclear program."
"[On] Yemen, we have said that we will support military cease-fire subject to Houthis abiding by cease-fire," he said. "We are working to get humanitarian assistance into Yemen and we are hoping that Houthis will abide by terms of cease-fire. On Iran, we were assured that the objective is to deny Iran a nuclear weapon and that all pathways were closed — everybody welcomed this."
Describing an "extremely productive day," he said delegations also discussed "how to deal with counterterrorism, how do we advance; how do we counter Iran’s negative involvement in the region and how do we work together as a group to solve problems in Libya, Yemen, etc... This meeting was about strategic relationship between these countries — the reality of the relationship is about common security," he said.
"This was not a meeting about 'we want, you give.'"
Obama administration officials this week dismissed talk of a snub by Saudi Arabia, after Saudi officials said King Salman would not be attending the summit as planned. Of the six GCC countries, only Kuwait and Qatar sent heads of state.
Some material for this report came from Reuters and AP.