ABU DHABI and WASHINGTON — While US President Barack Obama is committed to assuaging regional skeptics over the nuclear deal with Iran, US officials say security assurances will be primarily procedural, aimed at self-defense and unlikely to significantly augment attack capabilities of Israel or Arabian Gulf states.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s trip to the region this week, and visits by other high-ranking members of the administration to follow, will accent the myriad ways Washington has, is and will continue to provide for allied self-defense capacities of its allies in the region, officials said.
Some 40,000 US troops in the region; billions of dollars in prepositioned US materiel and war stocks; and myriad joint and multinational exercises planned in the weeks and months ahead are at the heart of Obama's pledge, reiterated at a July 15 White House press briefing, "to strengthen our security partnerships so that they feel they can address any potential threats that may come, including threats from Iran."
In addition, a State Department source said "many hundreds of people across numerous government agencies," including the Pentagon, Treasury Department and US national labs, will be working in parallel to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection regime to detect possible attempts by Iran to cheat on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) inked in Vienna July 14.
But as Carter and others work to dispel angst over a prospective resurgence of Iran, officials said they will also seek to temper expectations of major new initiatives or — in Israel's case, a bonanza of compensation — to come from the deal between Iran and world powers.
"There seems to be some conflation between the Iran nuclear deal and the expectation to fix all the bad things Iran does that we and our partners don't like. Obviously those issues will continue to be a key subject of conversation, but there's not going to be a swag bag of military hardware as a result of this deal," said one administration official.
In a July 16 interview, he noted that JCPOA served to mitigate what Israel had viewed as an existential threat.
"The security concerns of Israel and our other partners were constantly at play in a process that involved our best people working over 18 months; with two Cabinet secretaries locked in a room for weeks.
"So what will follow in terms of reassurances will not necessarily mean more offensive capability," he said.
Rather, he and others pointed to non-kinetic, yet operationally critical mechanisms for shared early warning data, common command-and-control protocols, and enhanced cooperation to augment cyber and missile defenses.
"We're building on interagency support to ensure that everything that will have to happen to support our partners in a major conflict will happen," an officer at the Pentagon said last week.
As for new capabilities, such as active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for Israeli F-15Is and 10 SH-60 Seahawk helicopters for Saudi Arabia, the officer said the Pentagon was working "to hone our ability to respond to their requests for capability in a reasonable way."
Missile defense, said Theodore Karasik, a UAE-based geopolitical and military analyst, will remain a centerpiece of Washington's efforts to beef up Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) capacity for an integrated, networked defense.
"Sales of THAAD variants and modified PAC 3 systems will be continued. This is the Obama administration's legacy to the GCC," he said.
In parallel, the administration is working multiple programs to preserve Israel's congressionally mandated qualitative military edge in large part through a follow-on 10-year aid package to kick in once the current $30 billion Foreign Military Financing agreement expires in 2018.
Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, chaired a bilateral forum with Israel earlier this summer, and follow-up sessions will take place on a nearly monthly basis, sources said.
In the Pentagon, officers said that, at Israel's request, bilateral planning is focusing on fortifying the cumulative aspects of Israel's edge to ensure it does not erode over time as Washington works in parallel to augment GCC capabilities.
"As we look around the region and build capacity in neighboring nations, we recognize that quantity has a qualitative effect that can be eroded over time. So we're working with the Israelis to prevent any such erosion of their qualitative and cumulative military edge," an officer said.
When asked about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's frequent public references to the commonality of interests between his country and key Sunni GCC members, US experts said political differences among US regional partners — primarily over Palestine — overshadow their shared concern over a resurgent Iran.
Even the manner in which Israel and GCC states responded to the P5+1 deal, with Israel stridently vowing to oppose it compared with the more subtle approach adopted by Iran's immediate neighbors, underscored major gaps in the ostensibly tacit partnership forming as a counterweight to the Iranian threat.
Officially, GCC countries congratulated Iran on the nuclear agreement, calling for security and prosperity in the region. GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif Al-Zayani said GCC foreign ministers expressed hope that the JCPOA would alleviate concerns over Iran's nuclear program and avert a nuclear arms race.
In contrast, Netanyahu and opposition leaders in the Israeli Knesset assailed the deal for the economic and diplomatic tailwind it would provide for Iran's destabilizing and terror-supporting activities in the region.
"Optically, there's still a lot of issues to be resolved before we can begin to think about cooperating simultaneously, on a single track, with all our partners in the region," a Pentagon officer said.
"They may already be talking or quietly coordinating. I don’t know. But for us to merge our parallel tracks and start thinking about true multilaterals with Israel and our GCC partners, there’s going to have to be a major kumbaya Qumbaya moment in the Middle East."
Barring that, gulf leaders will have to balance concerns over Iran with their interest in keeping the US — a key figure in guaranteeing security and stability in the region — as an ally, said Jamal Abdullah, a researcher at the Doha based Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies.
"On the ground, however, countries like Saudi Arabia have started thinking of alternatives. Saudi Arabia has found a possible third path through relations with Russia and France, countries that could aid Saudi in minimizing the damage of a nuclear agreement," Abdullah said in a paper he authored on June 29.
"Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's recent visit to Russia, and his subsequent signing of several commercial and defense agreements that included the building of 16 peaceful nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, demonstrate that the new Saudi leadership is working on diversifying alliances and political strategies.
"Such an approach to international politics suggests that Saudi Arabia is strongly invested in protecting its own interests and preserving regional stability, even as it continues its indispensable relationship with the US," he said.
When asked July 15 of US plans to mitigate Iran-driven concerns of its regional partners, State Department spokesman John Kirby flagged Carter’s upcoming trip to the region to Israel and the gulf where he aims to emphasize continued US obligations.
"We have vehicles within the US government to address those concerns, whether they are sanctions or other approaches we can take to try to deal with this, to include a consistent, persistent US military presence in the region, which is not going to go away," Kirby said.
He added, "One of the messages Secretary Carter will take is that of continued US commitment to our security commitments to our allies and partners in the region."