Saudi Arabia threatens Obama with regional arms race

Saudi Arabia has vowed to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities as Obama’s pledge of military backing for the Arab states falls short of an actual defense pact.

By: Lauren Calin
President Obama with the GCC delegates at Camp David. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Obama with the GCC delegates at Camp David. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Saudi Arabia vowed to match Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability at a summit of Arab states hosted in Washington. President Obama pledged an increase in military aid to US allies in the Persian Gulf that was far short of the formal defense pact that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, and Oman, had hoped for.

In a possible snub to Obama, King Salman of Saudi Arabia declined to attend the two-day summit, sending the country’s interior and defense ministers instead. “We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research,” an anonymous Arab official told the New York Times ahead of the meeting.

Under the framework nuclear agreement, Iran will be allowed to keep 6,000 of its centrifuges, a number the Iranian leadership is pushing to bump up to 10,000.

During the summit at Camp David, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir expressed skepticism that an Iranian nuclear agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. “We will follow the talks and see before we can judge in terms of whether or not the Iranians will do what it takes to reach a deal,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal vowed, “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” essentially threatening an arms race in the Middle East.

Obama rarely uses Camp David for personal or official business, and White House aides had hoped that the more intimate setting would foster candid conversation. But just two other heads of state — the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait — attended. The others sent lower-level, though still influential, representatives. The most embarrassing absence, for the U.S., was Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. He rejected the summit for a horse show in Britain and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II.

iran-army

Iran’s army on the march. (PressTV)

In order to assuage Arab fears, Obama invoked a “new era of cooperation,” promising Thursday “to work with our GCC partners to urgently determine what actions may be appropriate” in the event of Iranian aggression. This carefully worded pledge fell far short of a formal defense pact, which would obligate the US to defend its Gulf allies if attacked by Iran. Instead, the president offered an “extensive program” of military cooperation to develop Arab defense capabilities, including the creation of a regional missile defense system and conducting joint training exercises.

The US, he vowed, will “use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners.”

US military cooperation with the Arab Gulf states could prove a conundrum to Israel, which is similarly threatened by Iran’s nuclear program but also has a policy of maintaining a qualitative military edge (QME) over its Arab neighbors, who do not recognize its existence. Obama’s pledge may signify an erosion of the American commitment to maintain Israel’s QME.

AP contributed to this report.