GCC Summit: Obama Reassures Gulf on Iran

May 14, 2015

On May 13 and 14, representatives from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – met with President Obama at the White House and Camp David to discuss formalizing security arrangements. The talks focused on crises in Syria and Yemen, but the blueprint for a nuclear deal, announced by Iran and the world’s six major powers on April 2, was a major catalyst for holding the summit. Gulf leaders are concerned that a final deal could threaten their interests by empowering Iran in the region.

Ahead of the summit, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the goal of the meeting was to develop a “game plan” for security cooperation and help Gulf states develop “the capabilities that will better prepare them to deal with the evolving situation in the region.” But Gulf leaders planned to push for a more substantial defense pact. “In the past we have survived with a gentleman's agreement with the United States about security,” said United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Yousef al Otaiba. “I think today we need something in writing, we need something institutionalized.”
King Salman of Saudi Arabia pulled out of the talks on May 10, choosing to send a delegation led by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef instead. The move was widely seen as a snub to Obama, but Saudi officials have denied that was the intention. Only Kuwait and Qatar sent their heads of state to the summit, while the other Gulf nations sent other high-ranking officials. The following officials attended the summit.
  • Saudi Arabia: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
  • Kuwait: Emir Jaber al Ahmad al Sabah
  • Qatar: Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani
  • Bahrain: Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa
  • Oman: Deputy Prime Minister Sayyid Fahd Mahmoud al Said
  • United Arab Emirates: Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan
The following are excerpts about Iran from the joint statement and annex outlining the results of the summit, released on May 14, followed by remarks from U.S., Gulf, and Iranian officials about the GCC summit.
Joint Statement and Annex by President Obama and Heads of Delegations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states
“Building on the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, the leaders discussed a new U.S.-GCC strategic partnership to enhance their work to improve security cooperation, especially on fast-tracking arms transfers, as well as on counter-terrorism, maritime security, cybersecurity, and ballistic missile defense. They reviewed the status of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, and emphasized that a comprehensive, 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. The United States and GCC member states oppose and will work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and stressed the need for Iran to engage the region according to the principles of good neighborliness, strict non-interference in domestic affairs, and respect for territorial integrity, consistent with international law and the United Nations Charter, and for Iran to take concrete, practical steps to build trust and resolve its differences with neighbors by peaceful means."
Click here for the full statement
"The United States and GCC member states oppose and will cooperate in countering Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and continue consultations on how to enhance the region’s security architecture. As part of this effort, the United States will work in partnership with GCC member states to build their capacity to defend themselves against external aggression, including in terms of air and missile defense, maritime and cybersecurity, as GCC member states take steps to increase the interoperability of their military forces and continue to better integrate their advanced capabilities. At the same time, the United States and GCC member states reaffirmed their willingness to develop normalized relations with Iran should it cease its destabilizing activities and their belief that such relations would contribute to regional security."
Click here for the full annex
GCC Assistant Secretary General Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg
The summit “exceeded the expectations of most of us.”

“The U.S. side made it very clear that they were aware of the issues that troubled us.”
—May 15, 2015 at a press conference in Washington, D.C.
United States
Secretary of State John Kerry
“We also discussed the potential Iran nuclear deal and ways in which the United States and Saudi Arabia can cooperate going forward. And throughout the P5+1 negotiating process, we’ve been constantly consulting with Saudi Arabia, and we will continue to do so.”
“We make clear that we remain concerned about Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region, and it is precisely because of those concerns that we believe it is so important that Iran not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”
“The United States is deeply concerned about Iran’s activities in the region. We are planning to – we’re not planning to, we are enforcing the United Nations arms embargo requirements, et cetera. We’ve been raising the level of effort of the maritime initiative with respect to the Gulf and area, most recently with the Theodore Roosevelt being moved in and other activities that we’ve been engaged in. And one of the topics of our conversation, in the context of Paris tomorrow and Camp David, will be the further steps that we will be taking together with our allies to prevent activities that are in contravention of many United Nations resolutions and also the standards and norms of international behavior between countries. So we are very, very concerned about those activities – in Iraq, with Hizballah, in Yemen, and elsewhere.”
May 7, 2015 in a press availability with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir
“Our effort to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue with respect to Iran does not stem from any lessening of our concerns about all of these other destabilizing events within the region. And it’s obvious to all, I think, that it’s easier to address those events if the potential of a nuclear weapon has been eliminated from the equation with respect to the challenges that we face.”
May 8, in a press availability with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes
“Clearly, there is significant interest in the GCC about Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region, and this will be an opportunity both to review the status of negotiations with respect to Iran’s nuclear program but also to review our efforts to counter those destabilizing actions in different countries across the region.”
“We will be discussing both the ongoing nuclear negotiations, as well as other regional activities that Iran has engaged in.  We have made clear that the issues are separate in the sense that the United States is negotiating very specifically a nuclear deal with Iran.  But at the same time that we are negotiating that deal, our concerns over Iran’s other destabilizing actions in the region will remain constant.”
“Where they are related is in our strong belief that an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon, or the capability to amass enough material for a nuclear weapon would pose a much greater risk to the region than an Iran that is without one.”
“If you imagine what Iran is doing today, and then you consider Iran undertaking those activities with a nuclear umbrella, the situation would be much more unstable and much more threatening to our partners.  That's why we believe that the nuclear deal is profoundly in the interest of not just the United States and our P5+1 partners, but also the region more generally.  Because, again, if you can diplomatically and peacefully resolve the nuclear issue in a way that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we believe that will lead to a much more stable region than a situation in which Iran is essentially at the doorstep of having enough material to produce a nuclear weapon.”
May 11, 2015, in an on-the-record conference call

National Security Advisor to the Vice President Colin Kahl
"This administration has worked extraordinarily closely with the Gulf states to make sure that they had access to state-of-the-art armaments.  I mean, just to give you -- you mentioned the F-35, but keep in mind under this administration we moved forward on a package for the Saudis that will provide them the most advanced F-15 aircraft in the region.  The Emiratis fly the most advanced F-16s in the world.  They’re more advanced than the ones our Air Force flies.  Taken as a whole, the GCC last year spent nearly $135 billion on their defense.  The Saudis spent more than $80 billion.  Taken in comparison, the Iranians spent something like $15 billion on their defense."
May 11, 2015, in an on-the-record conference call
National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region Rob Malley
“[With Iran] you have a whole slew of concerns they have about whether once we have a deal, we're going to turn our back on our traditional allies; whether we’ll normalize with Iran; whether the deal is going to empower Iran; whether we are assuming that a deal will lead to moderation, which they think is not the case.  And again, these are points that the President has made time and again, and these points were made again by Secretary Kerry and by Secretary Moniz and by a representative from the Department of the Treasury in Paris.  None of that is the case.
“First of all, again, as Colin said, it’s precisely because we think Iran has engaged in destabilizing behavior that we don't want to see them acquire a nuclear bomb.  And the President’s bet is not a bet on moderation.  It’s a bet that assumes the worst; hopes that maybe Iran will change its behavior.  But this is a deal that’s supposed to be as solid and as good -- if Iran doesn't change as if it does change. 
“And in terms of the sanctions, which is one of their concerns, we obviously make the point the sanctions are not going to be removed all at once.  Not all of them are going to be removed.  A lot of them are going to stay in place.  And we have snapback -- if we get a deal, that is -- on sanctions and of the U.N. sanctions.
“A lot of this I think the foreign ministers hadn’t heard; I don't think the leaders will have heard.  And so they need to better understand what our approach is towards Iran.  I think it’s one the President has been transparent about from day one.  He also believes -- as was mentioned earlier, and as Colin just said -- part of this is to get the GCC States in a position where they could deal with greater confidence and self-confidence and strength with Iran, not in order to perpetuate a never-ending conflict, but to engage Iran to try to resolve the problems of the region, which will only be resolved once the region itself comes together and tries to find security arrangements that will stabilize the situation in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq and elsewhere.
“And so that’s sort of the paradigm under which this is taking place.  The prism through which we look at this is how do we strengthen our cooperation with the GCC, how do we strengthen the GCC’s own capacity so that the strategic balance in the region is such that you could finally get to the point where the GCC, Iran and other countries in the region could actually resolve the problems that are making the region as unstable and as dangerous as it is today.”
May 11, 2015, in an on-the-record conference call
Saudi Arabia
Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir
“With regards to the Iran – we have always maintained that Iran should have no role in Yemen. The last time I checked, Iran didn’t have a border with Yemen. And so the Iranian role in Yemen has been a negative one. They have supported the Houthis financially, ideologically, as well as with weapons, and this is not helpful. They have tried to smuggle weapons into Yemen in the midst of this conflict, and we have been able to stop aircraft from landing in Sana’a airport. And the United States has been able to turn back a flotilla of Iranian ships, which we suspect were loaded with weapons that were intended to go to the Houthis. So no, I do not think that Iran’s role in Yemen is a helpful one. I hope they can prevail on their allies, the Houthis, to abide by the ceasefire, but that’s my view on Iran and its role in Yemen.”
May 7, 2015 in a press availability with Secretary of State John Kerry
“We also spent another hour and a half on Camp David and the objectives of Camp David and the issues that will be discussed at Camp David. Don’t ask me to talk about it because I won’t; I can just tell you in general terms that they have to do with the intensifying and strengthening the security-military relationship between the United States of America and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, as well as dealing with new challenges that we face in the region, foremost of which is the Iranian interference in the affairs of the countries of the region.”
May 8, in a press availability with Secretary of State John Kerry

United Arab Emirates

Ambassador to the United States Yousef al Otaiba

“Most GCC countries are more worried about Iran’s behavior than whether it will have 5,000 or 7,000 centrifuges.”
“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"
—May 7, 2015, at an event at the Atlantic Council

Click here for Iran's reaction.