Were Iran’s ambitions diffused at the rare Camp David summit?
The key question is whether President Obama can continue to provide tangible security guarantees to the GCC states
In a rare Camp David summit at the presidential retreat in Maryland On Thursday, the White House held meetings with leaders and highly influential delegates of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman.
Iranian leaders dismissed the summit. Ali Akbar Velayati, who is close advisor to the Supreme Leader, heavily criticized and lashed out at Saudi Arabia and told the Financial Times that the meeting would not yield any concrete results or be fruitful. He stated that despite the summit, nuclear talks will continue and Iran will not be weakened. He warned that “we will not stop our support for Syria and Lebanon…Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are co-operating very closely.”
According to a statement by the White House, President Obama spoke with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, on the phone this week to discuss the crucial topics of the summit including efforts "to build a collective capacity to address more effectively the range of threats facing the region and to resolve regional conflicts."
President Obama reasserted his commitment to security and defense cooperation between GCC states and the United States against an "external attack" and potential threats from the Islamic Republic including maritime, cyber, and missile attacks.
Obama also pointed out "The United States will stand by our GCC partners against external attacks and will deepen and extend cooperation that we have."
Nevertheless, Obama’s commitment and announcement came short of being formal and were verbal statements rather than written agreements. The White House invitation was viewed as an attempt by the Obama administration to discuss several critical topics in the region, as the stakes are high.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication stated "We're very pleased and feel like we have the exact right people around the table to have this discussion."
Iran’s nuclear file and its regional role
The White House's attempt to gather Arab leaders in Washington was viewed as a concentrated effort by President Obama to reassure GCC countries of his overtures to Iran, as well as American commitment to the region's security.
The Camp David summit was also perceived as an attempt by the Obama administration to remove any possible hurdles to the final nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers (known as P5+1: the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China) due by the June 30 deadline.
President Obama’s dealings with the Islamic Republic have raised a considerable amount of concern. According to the White House, the proposal for the final nuclear deal with Iran would keep the Islamic Republic one year away from obtaining a nuclear bomb. However, it would not resolve Iran's nuclear file permanently, as the Islamic Republic will be permitted to maintain much of its nuclear infrastructure.
These issues have led to the notion that the final agreement between Iran and Western powers might not prevent Tehran from reaching its ultimate nuclear ambitions.
Iran’s increasing influence in the region and meddling in internal affairs of other Arab nations have caused concerns over regional stability and security as well as the effectiveness of American overtures to Iran and the shift in its foreign policy towards the Islamic Republic.
Moreover, the lifting of the U.N. Security Council's economic sanctions is considered to further empower Iranian leaders, provide more financial leverage to fund its proxies, as well as ratchet up their regional ambitions and geopolitical influence.
President Obama is seeking to allay regional concerns regarding Iran’s influence in the region and the future of its nuclear enrichment, particularly after admitting earlier this week that GCC states have a right to be concerned about Iran's interference in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
Nevertheless, the key question is whether President Obama can continue to pitch an effective agenda and chart a concrete and comprehensive plan that alleviates concerns with regards to Iran’s increasing influence in the region and the prospects of it nuclear file.
A joint defense system
The second critical topic in the agenda was linked to a potential security treaty with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including assisting the GCC states in building a common defense infrastructure, a potential ballistic missile defense system, and a region-wide defense system.
U.S. officials told Reuters that cooperative and multilateral military exercises, arms sale, and better security commitments from Washington may be part of the U.S. proposal to GCC states to create a region-wide defense system against Iranian missiles and alleviate concerns with regards to external threats.
Previously, President Obama had verbally indicated his commitment for enhanced cooperation between Washington and GCC states when he pointed out to The New York Times in an interview: "When it comes to external aggression, I think we're going to be there for our (Arab) friends -- and 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."
On the other hand, some Arab leaders were looking for a formal and written security treaty between Washington and the GCC states, similar to the agreement between Washington and Tokyo, rather than verbal and non-binding commitments.
As the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Washington had stated before the summit: “We are looking for (some form of) security guarantee given the behavior of Iran in the region,” and he added “In the past, we have survived with a gentleman's agreement with the United States about security... I think today we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”
In recent years, the prioritization of Iran’s final nuclear dear over Tehran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad, its role in Iraq, the Strait of Hormuz, and its support for the Shiite proxies, had led to questions regarding the efficiency of U.S. Middle East policy.
Now, two potential hurdles to the final nuclear agreement is congressional approval from the Republican-controlled senate as well as the potential opposition from U.S. major ally in the Middle East -- Israel.
The key question is whether President Obama can continue to provide tangible security guarantees to the GCC states, or whether his commitments will only be verbal and non-binding.
Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at email@example.com
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