The May 14 meeting at Camp David between President Obama and top Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials was a historic opportunity for the United States to upgrade its security commitments to Gulf partners and to reassure them that a potential nuclear deal with Iran would not come at the expense of collective interests. Although US commitments fell short of a formal defense treaty, Camp David was tacitly deemed a success by US and Gulf officials, laying the groundwork for stronger multilateral cooperation, including assistance with a regional program to defend against Iranian missiles, increased collaboration on maritime security, and more joint training exercises. Assistant Secretary General of the GCC Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg said at a news conference on May 15 that the summit “exceeded the expectations of most of us” by reassuring GCC states of an “unequivocal” commitment to their security.

As part of an Atlantic Council Members’ Conference Call series, the Council’s Brent Scowcroft on International Security hosted The Hon. Dov Zakheim, Senior Fellow at CNA Corporation, Atlantic Council Board Director, and former Undersecretary of Defense and Chief Financial Officer of the US Department of Defense; and Mr. Mishaal Al Gergawi, Managing Director of the Abu Dhabi-based Delma Institute, for a discussion on May 15, 2015 on the outcomes of President Obama’s meeting with GCC leaders at Camp David, its meaning in light of a potential Iran nuclear deal, and the balance of power in the Gulf.

‘There was much ado about very little’

In a joint statement following the day-long summit, President Obama pledged to “work jointly with the GCC states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state’s territorial integrity…” including the “potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners.” But President Obama was equally clear that the purpose of security cooperation is “not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran.”

Dov Zakheim opened his remarks with his bottom line up front: “There was much ado about very little.” Zakheim argued that not all that much was given at Camp David: “you didn’t hear much about F-35s; you didn’t hear much about bunker busters.” The only promises that were made, according to Zakheim, was that we’d have the backs of our Gulf friends.

Though the United States has long provided military assistance to Gulf partners, the joint statement pledged new cooperation on counterterrorism, maritime security, cybersecurity and ballistic missile defense, among other things. But US officials said the increased US commitments stop short of a formal defense treaty that some of the Gulf countries had sought. “What there was instead was promises of things we’ve promised before. It isn’t obvious to me what our Gulf friends got out of the agreement,” said Zakheim.

‘We need to have an adult conversation on Iran’

In an April 4 interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, President Obama hailed the ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran as “our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.” Although potential nuclear deal with Iran has caused a rift between the United States and GCC states, Gulf partners are concerned not only with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but more importantly with the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions, hostile activities, and sponsorship of belligerent proxy groups.

“Clearly there is tremendous unease in the Gulf, and there has been for some time about Iran and about where the United States intends to go beyond the framework agreement and, frankly, beyond the nuclear agreement,” said Zakheim, who has worked on the Gulf in an official and an unofficial capacity for over 25 years. “I have never ever seen Gulf leaders so anxious and so nervous as they are today.”

Mishaal Al Gergawi was quick to point out the limitations of the Iran deal: “What the Iran deal does is it implicitly divides what’s happening on the ground – the belligerence and the instability in the region – with the nuclear file and sees them very separately.”

The joint US-GCC statement following the summit went beyond assurances on the Iran nuclear deal, stressing the need for Iran “to engage the region according to the principles of good neighborliness, strict non-interference in domestic affairs.” According to Gergawi, this is part of an effort to bring Iran into the world system, “but not from the front door, from the back door.” “We’re stuck between two options and we’re choosing something in between that doesn’t work: we either confront Iran and say ‘we won’t stand for this’ or we say ‘we recognize Iran is a civilizational power and that it’s part of the framework of the region’ and we take a much larger agreement and have a big boys’ conversation [about Iran].”

“What the leaders in the Gulf would’ve wanted is more leadership from the US administration on the strategic moment.” If this is a transformational moment, Gergawi argued, “let’s act that way.” What we’re seeing instead in place of a strategic conversation is “tactics, tactics, tactics.”

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