WHITE HOUSE - President Barack Obama will host a summit next week of the six Sunni-led member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council that is expected to focus on the Iran nuclear deal and Tehran’s involvement in conflicts from Yemen to Syria.
For leaders of the Gulf countries, scenes of Iranian-supported Houthi rebels overrunning Yemen’s capital, Sana'a, and driving out its U.S.-backed government this year were a sign of the rising threat from Iran, and they come to the summit seeking reassurances of U.S. backing.
Obama’s argument is that negotiating a nuclear arrangement with Iran will, by itself, mean security for them.
“I am convinced that if this framework leads to a final, comprehensive deal, it will make our country, our allies and our world safer,” he said.
But America’s partners in the Persian Gulf region are not so sure.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the United States, said Gulf leaders want to upgrade their security relations with Washington.
"We are looking for some form of security guarantee, given the behavior of Iran in the region [and] given the rise of the extremist threat," he said. "We definitely want a stronger relationship. In the past, we have survived with a gentlemen’s agreement with the United States about security. I think today we need something in writing; we need something institutionalized.”
While no treaty will be signed, Obama does plan to talk with the Gulf leaders about building up their defense capabilities. It’s expected there will be some movement on speeding up weapons sales, setting up a regional defense system against Iranian missiles and planning joint military exercises.
But Obama said in an interview with The New York Times last month that the Sunni-led monarchies in the Gulf also must take into account another threat: the danger posed by some of their own people who are stifled by a lack of political outlets for their grievances. Obama said the biggest threat facing the Gulf Cooperation Council members may not be from Iran, but from internal dissatisfaction.
Obama’s criticism of the Gulf leaders' domestic policies, coupled with his outreach to Iran, has fueled their distrust.
So for the president, it is now important to make a visible show of support. Along with a dinner at the White House, the leaders will meet at Camp David, the presidential retreat in a mountain park outside Washington that traditionally has been used for intimate and historically important gatherings.
Derek Chollet, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, said that for Obama to be with the Gulf leaders at Camp David "has a special symbolism here in the United States and around the world. So it’s an important symbol of our commitment to the region.”
The United States maintains 35,000 troops in the Gulf region and, like the Gulf nations, wants to stem Iran’s destabilizing actions there. While no one expects this week's summit to resolve all distrust and disagreements, there is hope it will be a first step toward rebuilding confidence in the partnership.
Setting the stage
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry met in Paris with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council to lay the groundwork for the Washington summit.
The group comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. Kerry said the issues they discussed included the Iran nuclear negotiations and regional security challenges.
Also Friday, more than a thousand people took to the streets in Tehran to denounce the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen. Some also chanted anti-American slogans.
The Saudi-led coalition pummeled the northwestern Yemeni province of Saada on Saturday, while elsewhere coalition airstrikes hit the capital's international airport on the 45th day of fighting against the Houthi rebels.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have announced a May 12 start date for a five-day humanitarian pause in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition is waging an air campaign against advancing Houthi rebels. The conflict has left thousands of people in Yemen in need of basic supplies.
VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins contributed to this report from Paris.