Charging toward an Iran nuclear agreement, President Barack Obama is assuring Arab allies that they are safe from the threat of an empowered Tehran as he seeks to shore up some of America's most critical security partnerships. However, Obama's claim of winning Arab support for his nuclear diplomacy appears far from certain.
After a rare Camp David summit, the president on Thursday pledged Washington's "ironclad commitment" to the Sunni governments of the Persian Gulf and even spoke of authorizing U.S. military force if their security is endangered by Shiite Iran or anyone else. The United States, 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."
Obama invoked the start of a "new era of cooperation" that would last for decades to come, even as Saudi Arabia and others in the region are deeply unnerved by the prospect of an accord with Iran that would impose a decade-long freeze on its nuclear program and potentially provide it tens of billions of dollars' worth of relief from international sanctions. The Sunni governments came to Washington looking for assurances that Obama would pair his diplomatic effort with a broader strategy to push back against Iran's expanding influence in the Middle East.
The U.S. and other world powers hope to clinch a final nuclear deal with Iran by the end of June. This week's talks with top officials from the kingdoms of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were announced by Obama on April 2, when a framework with the Iranians was sealed.
Washington has long provided military support to its Gulf partners, most famously by invading Iraq in 1991 after its takeover of Kuwait. But like another U.S. ally, Israel, the Arabs fear a negotiated end to the Iran nuclear standoff would serve to enrich and empower a government already keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, fueling Yemen's rebellion, intimidating opponents in Iraq and Lebanon and meddling in the affairs of others through the region.
The sensitivities of the Arabs, and Israel for that matter, are part of the compendium of challenges facing Obama as he tries to finalize an agreement he believes could stabilize a part of the world beset by terrorism, sectarian rivalry and weak governance and which would be his crowning foreign policy achievement.
Obama's biggest test may come from home. Congress on Thursday sent Obama a bill enabling lawmakers to hold an up-or-down vote on an Iran deal, after House Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly approved the measure. The vote was 400-25; the Senate voted in favor 98-1 last week. Obama will sign it into law, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
The most notable absence was Saudi King Salman, who announced over the weekend he was skipping the event only two days after the White House announced his attendance. The White House and Saudi officials insisted the king was not snubbing Obama. But there are indisputable strains in the relationship, driven not only by Obama's Iran overtures but also the rise of Islamic State and al-Sham (ISIS) militants and a lessening U.S. dependency on Saudi oil.
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