Washington, DC, Asharq Al-Awsat—When he receives leaders and officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the White House on Wednesday and at Camp David on Thursday, US President Barack Obama will be keen to solidify his country’s historic alliance with the Gulf while pressing for a nuclear deal with Iran. Having issued the invitation for the summit in the immediate aftermath of the framework agreement with Iran last April, Obama must now deal with concerns from the Arab world that Tehran’s leaders will take advantage of any nuclear deal to further extend Iran’s reach in the region.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, his first with an Arabic-language newspaper, President Obama concurred that “the countries in the region are right to be deeply concerned about Iran’s activities, especially its support for violent proxies inside the borders of other nations.”
He also outlined his main priorities for the summit—and the region. He explains his reasoning for extending an invitation to the leaders of the GCC, saying it is part of an effort to “further strengthen our close partnerships, including our security cooperation, and to discuss how we can meet common challenges together. That includes working to resolve the conflicts across the Middle East that have taken so many innocent lives and caused so much suffering for the people of the region.”
Obama is expected to reassure Gulf allies of his country’s commitment to their security. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that “there should be no doubt about the commitment of the United States to the security of the region and to our GCC partners.”
Asharq Al-Awsat: You will be meeting leaders and officials from the GCC in Washington tonight and tomorrow at Camp David. Beyond words of support that you have given them in previous meetings, what actions and guarantees will the United States be committing to—and will they include guarantees for the Hormuz and Bab El-Mandeb straits?
Barack Obama: I have invited senior officials of the GCC states to Washington to further strengthen our close partnerships, including our security cooperation, and to discuss how we can meet common challenges together. That includes working to resolve the conflicts across the Middle East that have taken so many innocent lives and caused so much suffering for the people of the region. I’m grateful that all the GCC countries will be represented, and I look forward to our discussions at both the White House and Camp David.
Our meeting is rooted in our shared interest in a Gulf region that is peaceful, prosperous, and secure. As I said at the United Nations two years ago, the United States has core interests in the Middle East, including confronting external aggression; ensuring the free flow of energy and commerce, and freedom of navigation of international waters—and this includes the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El-Mandeb; dismantling terrorist networks that threaten our people; and preventing the development or use of weapons of mass destruction. I’ve made it clear that the United States is prepared to use all elements of our power to secure these interests.
These are not just words; they are backed by a strong record of real action. Across six decades, the United States has worked with GCC countries to advance our mutual interests. Americans have served in the region, and given their lives, for our mutual security. Thousands of US personnel serve in the Gulf region today to reinforce regional stability. Our armed forces train together in numerous major military exercises every year. So there should be no doubt about the commitment of the United States to the security of the region and to our GCC partners.
My hope is that this week’s meeting will deepen our cooperation across a range of areas. Together, we have the opportunity to improve our security coordination and help our GCC partners strengthen and further integrate their defense capabilities in a range of areas including missile defense, maritime security, cyber security, and border security. We can intensify our counterterrorism efforts with a focus on stemming the flow of foreign fighters and terrorist financing to conflict zones, as well as countering the evil ideology of ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS]. We can work together to resolve ongoing conflicts—in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya—and address underlying sectarian tensions which hold the region back.
I will have the opportunity to update the senior GCC officials on our negotiations toward a comprehensive deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which I strongly believe is the best way to ensure the security of the region, including our GCC partners. At the same time, this week’s meetings will be an opportunity to ensure that our countries are working closely to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, including Iran’s support for terrorist groups.
Q: There are many concerns about the role of Iran in countries like Syria and Yemen, stemming from the Iranian regime’s belief in “exporting the revolution.” How do you see Iran’s role in the region today, and how convinced are you that Iran’s rulers can be “constructive actors” if the nuclear deal is reached?
Iran clearly engages in dangerous and destabilizing behavior in different countries across the region. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. It helps prop up the Assad regime in Syria. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It aids the Houthi rebels in Yemen. So countries in the region are right to be deeply concerned about Iran’s activities, especially its support for violent proxies inside the borders of other nations.
It’s important to remember that Iran already engages in these activities without a nuclear arsenal. We can only imagine how Iran might become even more provocative if it were armed with a nuclear weapon. Moreover, it would become even harder for the international community to counter and deter Iran’s destabilizing behavior. That’s one of the reasons why the comprehensive deal we’re pursuing with Iran is so important—by preventing a nuclear-armed Iran it would remove one of the greatest threats to regional security.
Even as we’ve pursued a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States has remained vigilant against Iran’s other reckless behavior. We’ve maintained our robust military presence in the region and continued to help the GCC states build their capacity to deter and defend against all forms of external aggression. We’ve continued to fully enforce sanctions against Iran for its support of terrorism and its ballistic missile program—and we will enforce these sanctions going forward, even if we reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
When it comes to Iran’s future, I cannot predict Iran’s internal dynamics. Within Iran, there are leaders and groups that for decades have defined themselves in opposition to both the United States and our regional partners. I’m not counting on any nuclear deal to change that. That said, it’s also possible that if we can successfully address the nuclear question and Iran begins to receive relief from some nuclear sanctions, it could lead to more investments in the Iranian economy and more opportunity for the Iranian people, which could strengthen the hands of more moderate leaders in Iran. More Iranians could see that constructive engagement—not confrontation—with the international community is the better path. There are two paths available to Iran. One is continued confrontation; the better one is a more constructive approach to the region that would allow Iran to become more integrated with the global community. But even if the political dynamics in Iran do not change, a nuclear deal becomes even more necessary because it prevents a regime that is hostile to us from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q: In May 2011 you spoke of “self-determination” in the Arab world amid the changes of governments there. How do you see those changes today, especially in Syria where ISIS has been able to defeat much of the nationalist opposition?
What I said four years ago remains true today. It was a lack of self-determination—the inability of citizens to peacefully decide the future of their countries—that helped fuel the frustrations, resentments and lack of economic opportunity that gave rise to the Arab Spring. In some countries, such as Tunisia, there has been real progress as citizens embrace the spirit of compromise and inclusion that nations need to succeed. In contrast, the Assad regime launched a war on the Syrian people, and early hopes for progress there have been eclipsed by violence and extremism.
What hasn’t changed during these difficult years is the commitment of the United States to the people of the region. As I said in my speech four years ago, “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.” That is why we continue to support the right of citizens to decide their own destiny, to live with dignity, to choose governments that are inclusive, to have economic opportunities, and to control their own future. And the United States will continue to support universal rights in the Middle East, just as we do all over the world.
Syria, of course, poses a unique challenge. The tyrannical Assad regime continues to massacre its own people, and extremists such as ISIL and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front are perpetrating atrocities, plotting terrorist acts, and trying to impose their bankrupt ideology on the people of Syria. The policy of the United States is clear. Assad long ago lost all legitimacy and—since there is no military solution to Syria’s challenges—there must ultimately be a political transition toward a Syria where universal rights, including women’s rights, and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, are protected. Toward that end, the United States continues to support the moderate Syrian opposition, we remain the largest provider of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and with our coalition partners, including Arab nations, we will remain relentless in our campaign to degrade ISIL’s safe haven within Syria as part of our broader campaign to destroy ISIL.
Q: You came to office with a pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq and you kept your promise. However, the situation in Iraq today is much worse than when you came to power, with ISIS and armed militias threatening Iraq’s security. What will it take to stabilize Iraq and how much criticism will you accept to how it has turned out 12 years after the war you opposed?
One of the reasons that I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was because I felt we hadn’t considered the long-term consequences. In fact, the years of instability inside Iraq that followed the US invasion helped give rise to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into ISIL and then established its base in Syria. Over many years, the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars—and thousands of Americans gave their lives—to help Iraqis establish a new government and security forces. Tragically, the failure of the previous Iraqi government to govern in an inclusive manner contributed to a situation where certain Iraqis felt alienated and Iraqi security forces were unable or unwilling to defend much of Iraq against ISIL’s advance last year. So this isn’t just a military problem. It’s also a political problem as well.
It’s important for all of us to learn the lessons of the last 12 years. Those lessons lead me to believe that a military solution cannot be imposed on Iraq—certainly not by the United States. That’s why, along with our coalition partners, we’re pursuing a comprehensive approach to Iraq, in partnership with the Iraqi people. Our military campaign, including Arab partners, has halted ISIL’s advance and in some places pushed them back. Iraqi forces defeated ISIL at Tikrit, and ISIL has lost control of about a quarter of the populated territory it had in Iraq. We’re helping to train and strengthen local forces in Iraq so they can grow stronger. We’re providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq. As I’ve said many times, the campaign to destroy ISIL will take time, but I’m confident we’re going to succeed.
Ultimately, though, Iraq will only succeed if its leaders govern in an inclusive way where Iraqis from all backgrounds see that they have a future in Iraq. I’ve been encouraged by Prime Minister [Haider] Al-Abadi’s work to empower local forces by integrating Sunni tribes and working to develop a National Guard. He has also outlined a new, decentralized vision of governance. He’s reached out to Iraq’s neighbors, and he’s been welcomed in regional capitals. My meetings this week with our GCC partners will be an opportunity to reaffirm that we very much support stronger ties between Iraq and its neighbors, which must respect Iraq’s sovereignty.
Q: There was much appreciation for your initial efforts to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and have a two-state solution. And yet those efforts have been met by obstruction from various sides. Have you given up on reaching the two-state solution before the end of your presidency, and if not, how can you change the dynamic?
I will never give up on the hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the United States will never stop working to realize that goal. As I said when I visited Ramallah two years ago, Palestinians deserve an end to the occupation and the daily indignities that come with it; they deserve to live in an independent, sovereign state, where they can give their children a life of dignity and opportunity. And as I said in my speech to the Israeli people on that same trip, peace between Israelis and Palestinians is necessary, it is just, and it is possible. It is also in the national security interest of the United States. That’s why we’ve worked so hard over the years for a two-state solution and to develop innovative ways to address Israel’s security and Palestinian sovereignty needs.
With the breakdown of talks, simmering tension in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, last summer’s conflict in Gaza, and serious questions about overall commitment to a two-state outcome, it’s no secret that we now have a very difficult path forward. As a result, the United States is taking a hard look at our approach to the conflict.
We look to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to demonstrate—through policies and actions—a genuine commitment to a two-state solution. Only then can trust be rebuilt and a cycle of escalation avoided. Addressing the lasting impact in Gaza of last summer’s conflict should also be central to any effort. Ultimately, the parties will need to address not just Gaza’s immediate humanitarian and reconstruction needs, but also core challenges to Gaza’s future within a two-state context, including reinvigorating Gaza’s connection with the West Bank and reestablishing strong commercial links with Israel and the global economy.
Q: You reached out to the Arab world soon after coming to the White House with the Cairo speech; much has changed since then. In your recent New York Times interview you spoke of “Sunni youth,” and this caused quite an outcry in Arab cities where young people don’t want to be seen through their religious or sectarian identities. Do you regret that the US may have helped fuel some of this sectarianism? Do you have a message to those youth, including those who risk everything to get to “the West” via the Mediterranean sea where we have seen thousands perish?
I’ve spent my presidency—indeed much of my life—working to bridge perceived divisions of race, ethnicity and religion that too often prevent people from working together, in the United States and around the world. With respect to the Middle East, I have repeatedly urged governments to govern in an inclusive way so that all their people—be they Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, or other religious minorities—know that their rights will be upheld and that they will have an opportunity to succeed. So when young people refuse to see themselves through a sectarian lens, it gives me hope.
What is undeniable, however, is that sectarianism unfortunately does exist in the region. I said at the United Nations last year that “the proxy wars and terror campaigns between Sunni and Shi’a across the Middle East” are “a fight no one is winning.” Syria has been ripped apart by civil war. ISIL managed to take over large swaths of Iraq. ISIL peddles a distorted and false version of Islam and most of its victims are other Muslims—innocent men, women, and children. That’s why one of the issues we’ll focus on this week in Washington will be how our nations can work together to help resolve some of the region’s most pressing conflicts which have allowed these extremists to thrive.
It’s an utter tragedy that so many young people feel that the lack of opportunity at home drives them to risk their lives—and often lose their lives—trying to cross the Mediterranean for Europe. So my message to young people across the region is that the United States sees you for what you are—enormously talented young men and women who have so much to give your communities, your countries, and the world. And America wants to be your partner as you work to succeed. That was a core message of my speech in Cairo, and it remains our goal today. It’s why we’re working to support entrepreneurship and educational partnerships—so young people can turn their ideas into new ventures and businesses that create jobs and opportunity. And it’s why America will continue to stand up for democracy and human rights around the world—because we believe that every man and woman, boy and girl, deserves the chance to pursue their dreams, in freedom and dignity.