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Obama Tries To Calm Arab Fears Over Iran Talks

President Obama sits with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, left center, Secretary of State John Kerry, right center, and other Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and delegations at Camp David, Md., on Thursday.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama sits with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, left center, Secretary of State John Kerry, right center, and other Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and delegations at Camp David, Md., on Thursday.

President Obama assured allies in the Persian Gulf the U.S. would stand by them in the event of an external attack, tried to assuage their fears over U.S. talks with Iran over its nuclear program and said he shared their concerns about the Islamic republic's "destabilizing actions in the region."

Obama's comments came in a wide-ranging news conference today following talks at Camp David, Md., with leaders of six Arab countries that form the Gulf Cooperation Council. The monarchs of Kuwait and Qatar attended the meeting. But the rulers of Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates stayed home; they sent influential representatives instead.

Obama said they spent "considerable time" discussing Iran.

GCC members are concerned that talks the U.S. and its allies are having with Iran will allow the Islamic republic to hold on to a nuclear capability with which it can make weapons. They also cite Tehran's role in regional instability from Yemen to Syria and elsewhere.

To assuage some of those concerns, the two sides announced new military commitments, including joint exercises, ballistic missile cooperation, as well as cooperation on cyber, maritime and border security. You can read the joint statement after the talks here; the annex to the statement is here.

Obama also discussed the Senate's vote that brings him a step closer to fast-track authority on trade, a move that could pave the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

He called it a "smart, progressive, growth-promoting trade deal" and downplayed reports of a rift with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a critic of the planned global pact.

Obama also addressed the Syrian civil war, the Israel-Palestinian issue and infrastructure spending.

We blogged his news conference — and you can read his remarks on those issues below:

Updated at 6:26 p.m. Infrastructure Spending

President Obama said no one should be trying to score "political points" on the issue of infrastructure spending.

"This is how America became a superpower," he said. "We invested in infrastructure. We invested in our people."

Updated at 6:23 p.m. ET Israel-Palestinian Issue

President Obama said the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is now "distant," but "A two-state solution is absolutely vital ... for the long-term security of Israel as a Democratic and Jewish state."

He said he was aware that some members of the newly formed Israeli government "don't necessarily believe in that premise ... but that continues to be my premise."

Updated at 6:07 p.m. Fast-Track Trade Authority, Sen. Warren

Obama congratulated the Senate on its vote today on a key step to grant the president fast-track authority on trade. He called it a "smart, progressive, growth-promoting trade deal."

He dismissed claims that he had a tense relationship with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a critic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He said their disagreement has "never been personal." He said the media were making an issue of "two close allies who have a policy disagreement."

"What we really need to be focusing on ... are the other issues we all agree on," he said, citing issues including a strong minimum wage, infrastructure investment and collective bargaining.

Updated at 6:07 p.m. Syria

"We've got extraordinary challenges throughout the region — not just in Syria," Obama said.

"My commitment was to make sure that Syria was not using chemical weapons," he said, adding that Syria's leader had given up such weapons and recent reports of Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons were likely chlorine.

Updated at 6:02 p.m. Iran

President Obama said he wouldn't expect the Arab nations to" sign off on a deal [with Iran] without seeing" one.

He said there was concern from those attending today's meeting "that even if we deal effectively with the nuclear issue, we will still have an issue with Iran's destabilizing activity." He said that's a concern he shares.

Updated at 5:59 p.m.

President Obama says they spent "considerable time" discussing Iran.

He also said: "The United States will streamline and expedite the transfer of critical defense capabilities to our GCC partners."

Updated at 5:57 p.m. Security Ties

President Obama says the security relationship with the GCC countries is "a cornerstone of U.S. policy."

Updated at 5:55 p.m. Amtrak Derailment

President Obama extended his condolences to the victims of the derailment and said while it's too soon to tell what caused the accident, "We need to invest in infrastructure ... that's what great countries do."

Our original post continues:

NPR's Peter Kenyon reported Wednesday that some Sunni Arab leaders stayed behind because they have doubts about U.S. policy in the Middle East – from the talks the U.S. and its allies are having with Shiite Iran to the crises in Syria and Yemen. Here's more:

"To get some idea of the obsession Sunni-Arab Gulf states have with Shiite-led Iran, one only needs to glance around the region. Many Syrians, for instance, blame the chaos engulfing their country on the brutal government in Damascus or on rampaging groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But Gulf Arab leaders look at Syria and see one thing - a government propped up by Tehran.

"If you ask Yeminis what's wrong with their country, they might point to desperate poverty, a corrupt government, or the al-Qaida extremists who roam the countryside at will. But ask their Gulf Arab neighbors, and the answer is simple - the Houthi rebels battling the government are proxies for Iran. And then there's Iraq.

"When the Bush administration was preparing to invade Iraq more than a decade ago, the reaction from Gulf Arab leaders was stunned disbelief. Why, they asked, would our strongest ally hand Iraq over to neighboring Iran, which is exactly what they believe has happened since U.S. forces withdrew.

"Add to that outlook the fear that Iran could emerge from ongoing nuclear talks with more money to meddle in the region and shrinking Arab leverage as America grows less dependent on Gulf oil supply, and, analyst Salman Shaikh says, it's easy to see why Gulf States are increasingly taking matters into their own hands."

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.