The Obama administration is scrambling for reassurances it can present this month at a Camp David summit meeting to persuade Arab allies that the United States has their backs, despite a pending nuclear deal withIran.
Officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department have been meeting to discuss everything from joint training missions for American and Arab militaries to additional weapons sales to a loose defense pact that could signal that the United States would back those allies if they come under attack from Iran.
Over mahi-mahi at the Pentagon two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter polled a select group of Middle East experts for advice on how the administration could placate Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, all of which fear the nuclear deal, according to several attendees at the dinner.
Mr. Carter wanted to know “how do you make clear to the G.C.C. that America isn’t going to hand the house keys of the Persian Gulf over to Iran and then pivot to Asia?” said one Middle East expert at the dinner, using the acronym for the Gulf Cooperation Council. The council includesBahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
On April 20, during lunch with President Obama at the White House, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, pressed for a defense pact with the United States, according to a senior administration official. The president sought support from the Emirates for the Iran nuclear deal, which Secretary of State John Kerry is negotiating.
Administration officials said Mr. Obama had not settled on what to offer but that there were several possible options, most of them difficult to pull off. A security treaty with Saudi Arabia and the other countries is unlikely because that would have to be ratified by Congress and would probably run into opposition from Israel and its supporters on Capitol Hill.
But instead of a full-fledged security treaty — like the one the United States has with Japan ensuring that America will come to Japan’s defense — the administration is discussing offering a looser, less-binding defense pact. In the deal envisioned, American officials would put in writing, but not send to Congress, language agreeing to the defense of Arab allies if they come under attack from outside forces. Such a pact would not apply if the governments came under attack from political opponents within their own countries.
There is not much time left to come up with something. Mr. Kerry is to meet next week with the foreign ministers of the Arab countries to prepare for the Camp David summit meeting on May 14, and he will be expected to foreshadow what kind of package the administration is willing to offer. If he does not have anything that satisfies the gulf allies, they may downgrade their attendance at the Camp David meeting. Saudi Arabia, for example, could send its crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, instead of King Salman, in what would widely be interpreted as a rebuff of Mr. Obama.
Another option the administration is considering is whether to make Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “major non-NATO allies,” a designation that would loosen up restrictions on weapons sales. The designation falls short of a defense pact but does grant a number of military advantages that are available only to NATO allies.
Bahrain and Kuwait are already designated as such allies. Former President George W. Bush gave Kuwait the status in 2004 after it supported the American-led invasion of Iraq and served as a staging ground for United States troops. Bahrain, the home of the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, got the designation in 2002.
But neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates has the designation that could help soothe Arab fears, said Kenneth M. Pollack, an expert on Middle East political and military affairs at the Brookings Institution.
“The gulf states are very concerned about this nuclear deal with Iran,” Mr. Pollack said. “Some of them believe this is the start of an Obama administration bid to trade them away.” Administration officials, he said, were “trying to think creatively about how they can assuage those fears.”
Increased weapons sales could help, but there is a major roadblock: maintaining Israel’s military edge. The United States has long put restrictions on the types of weapons that American defense firms can sell to Arab nations, which are meant to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage against its adversaries in the region. That is why the administration has so far not allowed Lockheed Martin to sell the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons, to Arab countries. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth abilities and has been approved for sale to Israel.
Defense analysts say that with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, that could change. One possibility would be to wait three years after delivering the F-35 to Israel and then approve it for sale to the United Arab Emirates — the Arab ally most likely to get the first chance to buy the stealth fighter — which would give Israel a three-year head start.
If the Arab allies “could push a button and have anything, they want a security pact, a Japan-style treaty,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But they’re cognizant of the fact that that’s too big of an ask. So at the very minimum, it’s weapons sales.”
Vali R. Nasr, a former adviser to Mr. Obama who is now dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that the administration had already made moves to reassure the Arab allies — most notably by supporting Saudi-led airstrikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and by moving an aircraft carrier group to the Yemeni coast. The warships were meant as a show of force to turn back an Iranian convoy, which American officials said they suspected was trying to deliver weapons to the Houthis.
“Remember, our dog in the fight in Yemen is Al Qaeda, not the Houthis,” Mr. Nasr said. Moving the carrier group to back the Saudis “wasn’t about Yemen. It was about alliance management.”