Gulf States Want U.S. Assurances and Weapons in Exchange for Supporting Iran Nuclear Deal
Regional leaders seek quid pro quo of fighters, missile batteries, surveillance equipment
Gulf Arab nations are seeking advanced U.S. military hardware, such as the F-35 fighter pictured, in exchange for their support of a nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers with which it is negotiating.
By Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee
May 2, 2015 12:43 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—Leading Persian Gulf states want major new weapons systems and security guarantees from the White House in exchange for backing a nuclear agreement with Iran, according to U.S. and Arab officials.
The leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, plan to use a high-stakes meeting with President Barack Obama next week to request additional fighter jets, missile batteries and surveillance equipment.
They also intend to pressure Mr. Obama for new defense agreements between the U.S. and the Gulf nations that would outline terms and scenarios under which Washington would intervene if they are threatened by Iran, according to these officials.
The demands underscore the complicated diplomatic terrain Mr. Obama is navigating as he drives toward a nuclear deal with Iran, one of his top foreign-policy goals. They also demonstrate how a pact aimed at stabilizing the Middle East risks further militarizing an already volatile region.
Gulf leaders have long sought to bolster their military arsenals, but the requests pose problems for U.S. officials who want to demonstrate support for Arab allies, many of whom host American military bases, while also ensuring that Israel maintains a military advantage in the region.
Any moves by Mr. Obama to meet Arab leaders’ requests could face headwinds in Congress and new friction with Israel, given the continuing negotiations on an Iran nuclear deal. “I’m very worried that President Obama will promise every military toy they’ve always wanted and a security agreement short of a treaty, with the understanding they have to be sympathetic to this deal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.). “If I get a hint of that, a whiff of that, then I would do everything I could to block every bullet and every plane.”
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said White House officials have indicated that Mr. Obama was seriously considering Arab leaders’ requests. He said he would be shocked if some of them weren’t granted.
“These countries are in the most vulnerable geographical areas, and I think they have a legitimate concern about Iran,” said Mr. Engel, who has discussed the requests with Arab officials in recent weeks. But, he said, “We have to make sure that Israel’s qualitative military edge is kept.”
Mr. Obama is scheduled to host the leaders of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. at the White House on May 13 and the following day at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
The Persian Gulf countries say they need more drones, surveillance equipment and missile-defense systems to combat an Iranian regime they see as committed to becoming the region’s dominant power. The Gulf states also want upgraded fighter jets to contain the Iranian challenge, particularly the advanced F-35, known as the Joint Strike Fighter.
A senior U.S. official played down chances that the administration would agree to sell advanced systems such as the F-35 fighter to those nations—though the planes will be sold to Israel and Turkey—because of concerns within the administration about altering the military balance in the Middle East.
Sales of such advanced equipment would also likely run into opposition from pro-Israel lawmakers who have the power to block transfers, the official said.
The challenge Mr. Obama faces at Camp David is to assuage growing fears among those Sunni countries that want military superiority over Shiite-dominated Iran, while not undermining longtime U.S. security guarantees to Israel. Current law mandates that the U.S. uphold Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors.
Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Qatar share Israel’s concern about a nuclear deal with Iran but don’t have diplomatic ties with the Israeli government. A top concern among the Gulf nations and Israel is the expected unshackling of Tehran’s finances under the nuclear agreement that the U.S. and five other world powers are seeking with Iran by a June 30 deadline.
Iran’s neighbors fear such an influx of cash could allow the country to pour even more arms and funds into its military allies and proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
‘I’m very worried that President Obama will promise every military toy they’ve always wanted and a security agreement short of a treaty, with the understanding they have to be sympathetic to this deal.’
—Sen. Lindsey Graham, on the Iran nuclear accord and the coming meeting between Mr. Obama and the Arab leaders.
The outlines of the nuclear agreement, announced last month in Switzerland, call for lifting international sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its atomic work for at least a decade. Under terms being discussed, the U.S. and its allies would also be required eventually to release more than $100 billion of Iran’s oil revenues now frozen in overseas bank accounts.
In anticipation of such a change, the Gulf states have stepped up consultations with the White House on creating new security arrangements, according to U.S. and Arab officials. “We have to be very clear about what the future looks like,” said a senior Arab official involved in discussions with the White House.
Mr. Obama had lunch at the White House last month with U.A.E. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at which they had an extensive discussion about security issues, according to the White House.
Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with the Gulf states’ foreign ministers on May 8 in Paris.
Some Arab officials, in recent meetings with Obama administration officials, have raised the possibility of the Gulf Cooperation Council forging a mutual defense treaty with the U.S., similar to Japan’s or South Korea’s, according to people briefed on the talks. This would require Washington to intervene militarily if any member of the group came under attack by Iran or another enemy.
‘These countries are in the most-vulnerable geographical areas, and I think they have a legitimate concern about Iran…[But] we have to make sure that Israel’s qualitative military edge is kept.’
—Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee
The Gulf states tempered this ambition, however, after conceding the Obama administration would face major obstacles in convincing Congress to approve such a treaty, in part because of U.S. lawmakers’ steadfast support for Israel. Instead, the GCC is seeking to establish clear guidelines for when the U.S. would act to check Iranian aggression.
Reaching a common position between the Gulf states and the Obama administration is a difficult task, U.S. and Arab officials say. The Obama administration has at times differed from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. in gauging the level of Iranian support for political rebellions in countries like Yemen and Bahrain.
More recently, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies launched airstrikes on insurgents in Yemen, who they argue are receiving arms and funds from Iran—something Tehran denies.
On Tuesday, tensions flared when Iranian warships confronted a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz, prompting the deployment of a U.S. Navy destroyer to the area and stepped-up U.S. measures to protect American commercial vessels.
A White House statement in advance of Mr. Obama’s GCC meeting said the session is designed for the leaders to “discuss ways to enhance their partnership and deepen security cooperation.”
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the U.A.E. are already some of the largest arms buyers in the world. Last year, Riyadh purchased $80 billion worth of weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks the global arms business. The U.A.E. bought $23 billion.
“The Gulf monarchies need a military edge over Iran,” said an American official engaged in the deliberations between the GCC and U.S.
Some of the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia, have argued they should be allowed to obtain the same nuclear technologies Iran maintains as part of any diplomatic agreement with Washington. “We think there should be nuclear parity between us and Iran,” said an Arab official involved in the discussions.
But the Obama administration is expected to push back against any initiatives that risk further spreading sensitive nuclear technologies across the Mideast.
The U.S. commitment to Israel’s military superiority could undercut hopes for substantive agreements being reached at Camp David.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares the Arab governments’ belief that Iran poses the greatest security challenge to their region. But there remains fear in Israel that over the long term any sophisticated systems sold to the GCC countries could eventually be turned on Israel, according to Israeli officials.
Congress, as a result, may seek to block some of the arms deals being discussed. “We want to make sure that the one and only democracy in the region is never outgunned,” Mr. Graham said.
Write to Jay Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org
and Carol E. Lee at email@example.com