The Obama administration is said to be “scrambling” to find ways to reassure Arab allies that it is not abandoning them, despite the imminent nuclear deal with Iran. To that end, it is considering a range of options such as weapons sales that might reduce Israel’s hitherto sacrosanct military edge, The New York Times reported Friday, including selling the F-35 fighter jet to the United Arab Emirates.
Among the options cited by the paper as being under consideration: A defense pact under which the US would commit “to the defense of Arab allies if they come under attack from outside forces”; joint training missions for American and Arab military forces; designating Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as “major non-NATO allies,” a step that would loosen restrictions on weapons sales and offer “a number of military advantages that are available only to NATO allies”; and approving the sale of its advanced F-35 stealth fighter to the UAE three years after it is delivered to Israel.
The administration is hurriedly weighing such options ahead of a Camp David summit set for May 14 for President Barack Obama and Gulf allies, the New York Times said. Countries might reportedly “downgrade” their participation at the summit, intended for foreign ministers, if the president does not come up with a satisfactory offer.
There was no immediate Israeli response to the report, which broke after the start of the Jewish sabbath.
The Times quoted Defense Secretary Ashton Carter as having asked a group of Middle East experts two weeks ago for their “advice on how the administration could placate Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, all of which fear the nuclear deal.” The secretary reportedly asked them, “How do you make clear to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) that America isn’t going to hand the house keys of the Persian Gulf over to Iran and then pivot to Asia?”
Kenneth M. Pollack, an expert on Middle East political and military affairs at the Brookings Institution, told the paper: “The gulf states are very concerned about this nuclear deal with Iran… Some of them believe this is the start of an Obama administration bid to trade them away.”
The report said that at a White House meeting on April 20, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan “pressed for a defense pact with the United States,” while Obama “sought support from the Emirates for the Iran nuclear deal,” which is supposed to be finalized by June 30.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly condemned the emerging deal as a historic mistake. Obama is reportedly refusing to meet with Netanyahu before the June 30 deadline.
While a full-fledged security treaty with the Saudis and other Arab allies is deemed unlikely, in part because of the likely opposition from Congress and Israel, “the administration is discussing offering a looser, less-binding defense pact,” the Times report said. Under its possible terms, “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.”
Alternatively, Obama could turn Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into “major non-NATO allies,” easing restrictions on weapons sales to them. Bahrain and Kuwait already enjoy this status.
“Increased weapons sales could help, but there is a major roadblock: maintaining Israel’s military edge,” The Times noted. In order to ensure that Israel maintains its military advantage in the threatening Middle East, the United States “has long put restrictions on the types of weapons that American defense firms can sell to Arab nations,” noted The Times. One current example: The administration has barred Lockheed Martin from selling the F-35 fighter jet, which is “considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons,” in the Arab world.
But “with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, that could change,” according to defense analysts cited by the paper. “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… which would give Israel a three-year head start.”
Israel is set to start receiving the F-35s it has purchased as soon as next year. The Israeli Air Force regards the plane as critical to the country’s military advantage over its adversaries.
Meanwhile, a senior Gulf official told Britain’s Guardian Friday that the GCC leaders, in their talks this month with Obama, are “not going to do a Netanyahu” by overtly opposing the Iran deal, since they regard it as a foregone conclusion. “We are not wasting time confronting that agreement. We don’t want to be seen as going against a close ally. It would be bad politics for us,” the official said. “Instead we are bracing ourselves for the post-agreement world.”
What the Gulf states will seek from Obama, however, is “a concise and clear agreement on the containment of Iranian influence after the deal,” the Guardian report said. “This agreement would take the form of a memorandum of understanding, and would be accompanied by arms sales and support that would give forces in the Gulf a ‘qualitative advantage’ over Iran, a phrase echoing the guiding philosophy underpinning US military support for Israel.”
GCC foreign ministers are to meet next week with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris to prepare for the summit, and the “containment plan” will be debated there, the Guardian report said.