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Concerns on Iran

Obama Tries to Reassure And Nudge Gulf Allies

President Barack Obama said on Thursday that the United States would continue to enhance security cooperation with its allies in the Persian Gulf, while encouraging them to carry out domestic reforms and bolster their ability to defend themselves. The comments came at the end of a two-day summit meeting here with the leaders of six Persian Gulf nations that was intended to reassure them that the United States remains committed to their security even as it pursues rapprochement with Iran.
The meeting came amid growing concerns among Saudi Arabia and its closest allies that the United States is limiting its engagement in the Middle East at a time when Iran has taken advantage of regional turmoil to spread its influence. For their part, American officials have said they would like greater commitment from Gulf states in fighting terrorist groups, an effort that has become secondary to their campaign against Iranian-backed militants in Yemen.
In a series of closed-door sessions, Mr. Obama and his counterparts discussed a range of issues: the civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya, and the struggling efforts to end them; military and economic cooperation; and the fight against terrorist groups like the Islamic State.
Yet Mr. Obama left the Saudi capital on Thursday without announcing any concrete new plans or initiatives. He spoke to the news media alone before his departure, unaccompanied by any of the other leaders.
Throughout the visit, Mr. Obama did not back away from his recent comments referring to some United States allies as “freeriders,” and said they should improve their own military capabilities.
“Given the ongoing trends in the region, the United States will continue to increase our secure cooperation with our partners in the region, including increasing their own ability to defend themselves,” he said.
He said the United States had “serious concerns” about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, bur warned against confrontation.
“None of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran,” he said. Before the trip, American officials said they hoped the summit meeting would build on discussions with top Persian Gulf officials that took place when Mr. Obama hosted a similar group at Camp David a year ago.
On Thursday, Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, said the meetings took place during “a moment of opportunity” when fragile cease-fire agreements in Syria and Yemen might help persuade the Gulf states to refocus their attention on the terrorist threat in the region and the diplomatic efforts for a political transition in Syria. “There is broad agreement about where we are trying to go in the region,” Mr. Rhodes said in Riyadh. “What this summit allows us to do is to make sure we align our approaches and strategies.”
Mr. Rhodes acknowledged that several of the Gulf nations continue to be eager to buy modern weapons systems, like fighter jets, to augment their armed forces. He said the United States would continue to review further sales of those weapons. But he said the Obama administration was eager to shift the focus of assistance away from big equipment and toward the development of special forces and technology to thwart the threat of cyberattacks from the Islamic State and from Iran.
The large-scale weapons that the United States has sold in the past are “not necessarily the capabilities that are best designed to deal with the threats that we face,” Mr. Rhodes added.
But more broadly, for Mr. Obama the meeting offered an opportunity to reassure allies in the region that the United States government remained steadfast in its pledge to defend against regional threats.
Mr. Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran has unnerved Gulf countries, some of which view the agreement as evidence of a shift in American interests away from them.
The summit meeting included the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman--all of which are led by hereditary rulers presiding over largely closed political systems. Mr. Obama took the opportunity to call for economic reforms that would benefit all of their citizens as well as for human rights.
The meeting took place at Diriyah Palace, which Mr. Obama entered Thursday morning, walking down a chandelier-filled hallway and past a phalanx of Saudi soldiers holding golden swords.
The president posed for a photograph with the Arab leaders before taking his place at a small, round table where he chatted with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nhyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
Later on Thursday, Mr. Obama left Saudi Arabia for London, where he was to have lunch with Queen Elizabeth II, dinner with Prince William and the duchess of Cambridge, and meet with Prime Minister David Cameron.

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