Obama expected to push for Gulf missile defence at U.S. summit
President Barack Obama is expected to make a renewed U.S. push next week to help Gulf allies create a region-wide defence system to guard against Iranian missiles as he seeks to allay their anxieties over any nuclear deal with Tehran, according to U.S. sources.
The offer could be accompanied by enhanced security commitments, new arms sales and more joint military exercises, U.S. officials say, as Obama tries to reassure Gulf Arab countries that Washington is not abandoning them.
With little more than a week to go before Obama hosts the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council at the White House and then at Camp David, aides are discussing the options in pre-summit meetings with Arab diplomats. Officials say no final decisions on possible U.S. proposals have been made.
Obama faces a formidable challenge in deciding how far to go to sell sceptical Sunni-led allies on his top foreign policy priority, a final nuclear deal with Shi’ite Iran due by a June 30 deadline. Failure to placate them could further strain ties, though additional defence obligations would carry the risk of the United States being drawn into new Middle East conflicts.
Obama issued the invitation to the GCC to attend the May 13-14 summit after Iran and six world powers reached a framework agreement last month that would give Tehran sanctions relief for reining in its nuclear programme.
Gulf Arab neighbours, including key U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, worry that Iran will not be deterred from a nuclear bomb and will be flush with cash from unfrozen assets to fund proxies and expand its influence in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. "TWO-WAY STREET"
U.S. officials with knowledge of the internal discussions concede that Obama is under pressure to calm Arab fears by offering strengthened commitments.
“It’s a time to see what things might be required to be formalised,” a senior U.S. official said.
Obama is all but certain to stop short of a full security treaty with Saudi Arabia or other Gulf nations as that would require approval by the Republican-controlled Senate and risk stoking tensions with Washington`s main Middle East ally Israel.
A second U.S. official insisted the summit would be a “two-way street,” with Washington pushing Gulf leaders to overcome internal rivalries and find ways to collaborate better in their own defence.
Obama is likely to press Gulf allies to do more to integrate their disparate militaries and work towards a long-delayed anti-missile shield against an Iranian ballistic missile threat, the sources familiar with the discussions said. This could take the form of a new high-level joint working group led by the Pentagon, one of the sources said.
Gulf countries have already bought U.S. missile defence systems such as the Patriot system built by Raytheon Co and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system built by Lockheed Martin Corp .
But the Obama administration is now expected to press them to implement the initiative touted in late 2013 by then-Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel.
The programme allows the GCC to purchase equipment as a bloc and start knitting together radars, sensors and early warning networks with U.S. assistance but has been held up by distrust among some of the Gulf monarchies.
The Obama administration is concerned about shortcomings in the Gulf states’ joint operational capacity exposed by a Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen that has failed to push back Iran-allied Houthi fighters. CONCRETE STEPS
It was unclear specifically what Washington would offer the Gulf nations - which already operate some of the most evolved U.S.-made weaponry - in order to advance the missile shield. Lingering rifts between GCC members, especially Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, would need to be put aside before a joint missile system would be viable.
Experts now believe the time is ripe for greater cooperation because of deteriorating security across the region.
“Missile defence is absolutely critical to the GCC right now,” said Riki Ellison, founder of the nonprofit Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance. “They’re not as efficient playing separately as they would be all playing as one team,” he said.
Wary that Obama might keep any new security pledges vague, Gulf states have also made clear they want this translated into concrete steps.
“This summit can’t just be a big photo-op to pretend everybody’s on the same page on Iran,” one Arab diplomat said.
Several arms sales are likely, including resupplying bombs and missiles depleted in the Saudi-led air assault in Yemen and in strikes against Islamic State militants in the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria, the sources close to the matter said.
Kuwait`s proposed purchase of 28 Boeing Co F/A-18E/F Super Hornet advanced fighter jets, valued at more than $3 billion, is likely to be discussed during the summit, but it is unclear whether the deal will be finalised then, a U.S. official said. An announcement is expected in coming weeks, according to people familiar with the deal.
Washington is likely to stand firm on its decision to withhold from Gulf allies the purchase of Lockheed’s new top-flight F-35 fighter jet, another U.S. official said. The F-35 has been promised to Israel, with delivery of the stealth warplane set to begin next year, to help maintain a long-standing U.S. commitment to its regional military superiority.