KUWAIT CITY, April 19, (Agencies): His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, accompanied by an official delegation, will leave for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to lead Kuwait’s delegation to a meeting of GCC leaders and US President Barack Obama. The United States is seeking greater special forces and naval cooperation with the Gulf states to counter Iran’s “destabilising activities” in the region, a senior American official said.
Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, who arrived in the Saudi capital on Tuesday, will meet his Gulf counterparts on Wednesday. The following day he is expected to join President Barack Obama at a summit with monarchs of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states. They will gather in an atmosphere of tension with regional leaders offended by Obama’s perceived reluctance to get involved in the region’s problems, and in particular his tilt towards Iran. The Sunni Gulf states are worried after the lifting this year of international sanctions against their regional rival, Shiite Iran, under an international agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Riyadh and its neighbours fear the US-supported deal will only embolden Iran which they accuse of interference throughout the Middle East. Over the past 15 years the US has sold combat aircraft to Gulf states, but the senior American defence official said Iran’s activities “won’t be countered” in that way. Rather, “special operations forces and maritime interdiction” are needed, he said.
The US is proposing to help train Gulf special forces and to develop their naval capacity to prevent Iran from supplying Shiite groups that it supports in the region, the official said. In “just over a six month period we and our coalition partners were able to interdict four weapon shipments off the coast of Yemen”, he said. The United States provides precision-guided weapons and intelligence support to a Saudiled military coalition that intervened in Yemen 13 months ago to support the government against Iran-backed rebels.
Royal Saudi Air Force jets, many of them US-made F-15s, have carried out intensive air strikes against the rebels and their allies. The coalition maintains a naval blockade of Yemen. Carter will also repeat to his GCC counterparts the importance of increased support for Iraq, where the government is trying to reconquer territory seized by the Islamic State group of Sunni extremists. “We are urging them to come in … provide funds and support, both political and economic, to the Iraqi government,” the American official said. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Iraq presented his credentials in January, reestablishing relations a quarter-century after they were cut following ex-president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. “In a perfect world, we would see full diplomatic normalisation between all Gulf countries and the Iraqi government,” the official said. “There has been some reluctance among the Gulf states”.
On Monday in Baghdad, Carter announced new US support for the Iraqi government, including the deployment of an additional 217 military personnel. The Gulf Cooperation Council includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Obama travels to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday with a familiar message: the United States will not abandon its Gulf allies in their struggle against Iran, a regional power they fear is seeking to undermine their security.
Tired of what they see as a reduced commitment to old US allies, riled by comments Obama made about them in a magazine interview last month and aware there will be a new president in January, Riyadh and its neighbours may not be ready to just take his word for it. “We want to receive tangible reassurances from them,” said a senior Gulf official briefed on preparations for the meeting. Short of a formal defence treaty, an idea rejected before a previous summit, Riyadh and its allies hope to come away from their meeting with new missile defence systems. Obama wants to find a way for Gulf states and Iran to arrive at a “cold peace” that douses sectarian tensions around the region and curbs the spread of Islamist militancy.
Neither side is likely to get much more than partial satisfaction. Differences over how to assess and address what both the Gulf and United States describe as Iran’s destabilising activities in the Middle East have been at the root of the bumpiest period in ties between Washington and the pro-West monarchies for decades. Sunni Muslim Gulf states fear the nuclear deal Washington and other world powers agreed with Shi’ite power Iran, and Obama’s reluctance to get bogged down in the Middle East’s complex array of disputes, has freed Tehran to act without inhibition. The exception is Oman, which for historical reasons has tried to maintain good ties with Iran and helped broker talks that led to the deal.