Obama vows to 'stand by' Gulf allies amid concern over Iran threat

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Iran Looms Over Obama's Meetings with Arab Allies

President Barack Obama vowed on Thursday to back Gulf allies against any "external attack," seeking to reassure them of Washington's iron-clad commitment to their security amid Arab anxiety over U.S.-led efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.

Hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for a rare summit at Camp David, Obama pledged that the United States would consider using military force to defend them and would also help counter Iran's "destabilizing activities in the region."

"I am reaffirming our iron-clad commitment to the security of our Gulf partners," Obama told a closing news conference at the presidential retreat outside Washington.

Obama stopped short of offering a formal defense treaty that some Gulf countries had sought. Instead he announced more modest measures, including integrating ballistic missile defense systems, beefing up cyber and maritime security, streamlining weapons sales and increasing joint military exercises.

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Obama vows to 'stand by' Gulf allies amid concern over Iran threat
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama (C), alongside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaks with Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait (3L) during a working lunch with members of six Persian Gulf nations during the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to reporters following the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Deputy Prime Minister of Oman, Sayyid Fahad Bin Mahmood Al Said following the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama sits with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Secretary of State John Kerry, center right, and Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and delegations at Camp David, Md., Thursday, May 14, 2015. Obama and leaders from six Gulf nations are trying to work through tensions sparked by the U.S. bid for a nuclear deal with Iran, a pursuit that has put regional partners on edge. Obama is seeking to reassure the Gulf leaders that the U.S. overtures to Iran will not come at the expense of commitments to their security. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama addresses members of the media with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani center, and Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, right, after meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders at Camp David in Maryland, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Obama and leaders from six Gulf nations are trying to work through tensions sparked by the U.S. bid for a nuclear deal with Iran, a pursuit that has put regional partners on edge. Obama is seeking to reassure the Gulf leaders that the U.S. overtures to Iran will not come at the expense of commitments to their security. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Barack Obama, center, waits for from left, Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan; Bahrain Crown Prince Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalif; Deputy Prime Minister of Oman, Sayyid Fahad Bin Mahmood Al Said; Kuwait's Emir Sheik Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah; Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef; and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani; to make a statement following their meetings at Camp David in Maryland, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Obama and leaders from six Gulf nations are trying to work through tensions sparked by the U.S. bid for a nuclear deal with Iran, a pursuit that has put regional partners on edge. Obama is seeking to reassure the Gulf leaders that the U.S. overtures to Iran will not come at the expense of commitments to their security.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama encourages Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (L) to make a statement alongside Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, following the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, during a working lunch at the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama (C) speaks with and Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (L), Deputy Prime Minister of Oman, Sayyid Fahad Bin Mahmood Al Said (2nd-L) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani before a group photo following the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama, center, waves as he stands with, from left, Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan; Bahrain Crown Prince Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalif; Deputy Prime Minister of Oman, Sayyid Fahad Bin Mahmood Al Said; Kuwait's Emir Sheik Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah; Qatar's Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani; Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef; and Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani of Bahrain after their meeting at Camp David in Maryland, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Obama and leaders from six Gulf nations are trying to work through tensions sparked by the U.S. bid for a nuclear deal with Iran, a pursuit that has put regional partners on edge. Obama is seeking to reassure the Gulf leaders that the U.S. overtures to Iran will not come at the expense of commitments to their security.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks alongside Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (L) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, following the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama waves to members of the media after meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and delegations at Camp David, Md., Thursday, May 14, 2015. Obama and leaders from six Gulf nations are trying to work through tensions sparked by the U.S. bid for a nuclear deal with Iran, a pursuit that has put regional partners on edge. Obama is seeking to reassure the Gulf leaders that the U.S. overtures to Iran will not come at the expense of commitments to their security. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (R) welcomes Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, to the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is hosting a summit of Persian Gulf countries in Washington and at Camp David tomorrow. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: Shaikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Kuwait, arrives at the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting a summit of the for Gulf Cooperative Council countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (C) and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is hosting a summit of the Persian Gulf countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs of Oman, arrives at the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting a summit of the for Gulf Cooperative Council countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is hosting a summit of the Persian Gulf countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: Dr. Abdel Aziz Al Uwaisheq, Assistant Secretary General for the Gulf Cooperative Council arrives at the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting a summit of the Persian Gulf countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama walks out of the White House before welcoming members of the Gulf Cooperative Council for summit meetings May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is hosting a summit of the Persian Gulf countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmood Al Said, Deputy Prime Minister for the Council of Ministers' Affairs of the Sultanate of Oman, to the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is hosting a summit of the Persian Gulf countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: Dr. Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, arrives at the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting a summit of the for Gulf Cooperative Council countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, to the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is hosting a summit of the Persian Gulf countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Sheikh Tameem bin Hamad Al Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar, to the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is hosting a summit of the Persian Gulf countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) welcomes Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, to the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is hosting a summit of the Persian Gulf countries in Washington and will move the talks to Camp David on Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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The United States and five other world powers are seeking to reach a final deal with Iran on curbing its nuclear program by a June 30 deadline. The GCC agreed in a joint communique that a "comprehensive, verifiable" accord with Tehran would be in their security interests.

But Obama did not go as far as saying the Sunni Arab states had committed to backing the outcome of the talks with Iran, their Shi'ite arch-rival. The Saudi foreign minister made clear, in fact, that his government was withholding judgment for now.

Obama also sought to allay Gulf Arab concerns that the potential lifting of international sanctions on Tehran would embolden it to fuel more sectarian strife in the region.

Differences over U.S. policy toward Tehran, Syria's civil war and the Arab Spring uprisings loomed over the meetings, which were already clouded by the absence of most of the

Gulf's ruling monarchs, who instead sent lower-level officials.

Saudi King Salman pulled out, sending Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his place in a move widely interpreted as a snub that reflected Gulf frustration with the Obama administration. The White House insisted that such decisions were not intended as slights.

OBAMA'S BALANCING ACT

The GCC consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Obama sought to strike a balance between trying to ease their fears about his diplomacy with Iran and squeezing the oil-rich states to work together more in their own defense.

"The United States will stand by our GCC partners against external attack," Obama said, with Gulf leaders by his side.

But he then told a news conference it was a "two-way street" and Gulf countries, which have differences among themselves, must also cooperate better. A summit joint statement showed the GCC states committing to develop a U.S.-assisted region-wide missile defense system, something Washington has long advocated.

However, it was unclear whether Obama had made significant headway toward Gulf Arab backing for an emerging Iran deal. The White House had hoped at least for a toning-down of any criticism. That could help convince a skeptical U.S. Congress of broad backing in the region, where U.S. ally Israel stands as the most vocal opponent of Obama's diplomatic effort.

Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, has so far offered no overt criticism of the proposed strengthening of Gulf Arab defenses, suggesting that it is open to anything that challenges Iran's power in the region.

Gulf states, in the final communique, stopped short of endorsing a framework deal reached last month that envisages sanctions relief in return for curbs on Tehran's nuclear program. The agreement aims to prevent Iran from developing an atomic weapon, although Tehran has long maintained its nuclear program is purely for peaceful use.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said his country favors efforts to negotiate the closing of Iran's nuclear weapons pathways, but told reporters: "We will follow the talks and see before we can judge."

The White House said it does not want to see a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Some Saudi officials have hinted at pursuing the kingdom's own nuclear technology if any final deal leaves Iran with too much leeway to develop a weapon.

Gulf leaders are concerned that lifting sanctions would allow Tehran to increase funding for Shi'ite militias in volatile countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

The Saudis and other Gulf states have also been accused of fueling sectarian proxy wars involving their neighbors.

Obama seemed at one point to play down any non-nuclear threat from Iran. But he said Gulf states needed to shore up their defenses, including security for the world's most important oil routes.

Iranian naval vessels fired warning shots over a Singapore-flagged vessel in international waters in the Gulf on Thursday, prompting the oil products tanker to flee to UAE waters, according to U.S. officials.

(Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by James Dalgleish and Frances Kerry)




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