By Jefferson Morley
President Barack Obama pledged on May 14 to expedite arms sales to Persian Gulf monarchies concerned about a possible international agreement to curb but not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.
The United States seeks to “improve security cooperation, especially on fast-tracking arms transfers, as well as on counter-terrorism, maritime security, cybersecurity, and ballistic missile defense,” declared a joint statement issued after Obama and three U.S. cabinet secretaries met at the Camp David presidential retreat with top officials from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the six countries that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In return, GCC officials signed on to the statement endorsing Obama’s view that a “verifiable deal that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is in the security interests of GCC member states as well as the United States and the international community.”
GCC leaders have publicly worried that a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers will embolden Iran, the region’s most populous country and patron of Shiite minority communities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. With GCC countries already fighting Iranian-backed forces in Yemen, the Gulf officials sought and received assurances that Washington will support them against Iran.
The May 14 statement declared that the United States and the GCC “will work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region” and called on Iran “to engage the region according to the principles of good neighborliness, strict non-interference in domestic affairs, and respect for territorial integrity.”
A second U.S.-GCC statement on May 14 spelled out the specific actions Washington will take. The Defense Department will establish a dedicated Foreign Military Sales procurement office with the goal of “streamlining third-party transfers, and exploring ways the United States could accelerate the acquisition and fielding of key capabilities,” the statement said. The United States also will send a military team to GCC capitals “to increase the frequency of Special Operations Forces counter-terrorism cooperation and training.”
The Gulf monarchies, concerned about the spread of democratic uprisings in the Arab Spring in 2011 and the resurgence of jihadist forces in Iraq and Syria in 2014, have been bolstering their armed forces at a rapid rate. In the past five years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ranked among the top five countries in the world in arms imports, with a combined total of $14.5 billion in weapons purchases since 2009, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“The speeding up of existing deals could have a major impact” on the region’s military balance, William Hartung, analyst for the Center for International Policy, said in a May 15 e-mail. “Most of the tens of billions of dollars in deals that are under Foreign Military Sales agreements are still in the pipeline, and for major systems like aircraft, delivery can take years under normal circumstances.” He cited agreements with Qatar and Saudi Arabia for Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles and with Qatar and the UAE for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
Anthony Cordesman, analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the White House statement would not dispel GCC concerns about the possibility of rapprochement between Tehran and Washington.
“Did the GCC get a reassuring and helpful statement from the U.S? Yes,” Cordesman said in a May 15 interview. “Did they get the kind of security guarantees about Iran that they wanted? No.”