CAMP DAVID, Md. — President Barack Obama sought to reassure anxious Persian Gulf nations on Thursday that the United States is committed to their security, insisting a nuclear deal with Iran would not leave them more vulnerable.
Obama and leaders from the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries met in a rare summit at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin mountains. The leaders were expected to issue a statement announcing new military commitments, including joint exercises and ballistic missile cooperation.
“We’re really looking at what we can do to expedite the provision of support and capacity building to the GCC,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
While the U.S. has long provided military support to partners in the Gulf, the new commitments are expected to extend into cyber, maritime and border security.
Obama’s separate negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief has strained relations with many of America’s traditional partners in the region. Gulf states fear that if Iran gets an influx of money when sanctions are lifted, it will embolden what they see as Tehran’s aggression in the region.
As the leaders gathered, an Iranian naval patrol boat fired on a Singapore-flagged commercial ship in the Persian Gulf. A U.S. official said it was an apparent attempt to disable the ship over a financial dispute involving damage to an Iranian oil platform.
The incident took place a bit south of the island of Abu Musa just inside the Gulf, according to the U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss details by name. The White House said no Americans were involved in the incident.
Rhodes said that while the incident did not come up in Thursday’s discussions, it was “exactly the type of challenge” the Gulf nations are focused on.
Obama rarely uses Camp David for personal or official business. White House aides hoped the more intimate setting would lead to a more candid conversation with the Arab allies.
Just two other heads of state — the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait — joined Obama at Camp David. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain all sent lower-level but still influential representatives.
As the leaders gathered around a large table in the Laurel lodge, the most notable absence was Saudi King Salman. On Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced that the king was skipping the summit, two days after the White House said he was coming.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were representing Saudi Arabia instead.
The White House and Saudi officials insisted the king was not snubbing Obama. But there are indisputable signs of strain in the long relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, driven not only by Obama’s Iran overtures but also the rise of Islamic State militants and a lessening U.S. dependency on Saudi oil.
The Gulf summit comes as the U.S. and five other nations work to reach an agreement with Iran by the end of June. The White House says a nuclear accord could clear the way for more productive discussions with Iran about its reputed terror links.
The U.S. has criticized Iran’s support for Hezbollah, as well as attacks carried out by Iran’s Quds Force. In 2011, the Obama administration accused Iran of plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington.
The Saudis are also particularly concerned about the situation in Yemen, where Houthi rebels with ties with Iran have ousted the U.S.- and Saudi-backed leader.
For more than a month, a Saudi-led coalition has tried to push back the Houthis with a bombing campaign. On Tuesday, a five-day humanitarian cease-fire went into effect, though the pause in fighting was already at risk. A jet fighter from the Saudi coalition on Wednesday struck a military convoy belonging to Shiite rebels and their allies in southern Yemen.