Obama’s big sell at Camp David

Obama’s biggest challenge is convincing the Gulf countries that Iran is not a threat.

Obama walks on to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House prior to his departure to Camp David [Getty]
Obama walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House prior to his departure to Camp David [Getty]

Feeling isolated and left in the dark, the Gulf countries have for months maintained that a nuclear deal with Iran should only be pursued if it would not destabilise the region. Many in the Gulf believe Tehran may attempt to extend its regional influence once a deal is sealed with the West

In preparation for a two-day summit at Camp David set to begin on Wednesday, GCC officials met in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the month in a bid to deflect some of the attention paid to Western negotiations with Iran onto themselves.

Inside Story – Saudi Arabia and Iran: Is trouble brewing?

With this mood prevailing, it was perhaps no surprise that the kings of both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have now announced they will not attend the Camp David talks. Some speculate the move to send representatives in their stead can be interpreted as a snub to US President Barack Obama. Others say there really are no grounds to look for sinister motivations behind the late change of plans.

Deadline approaches

There is less than two months before the deal’s official deadline, set by the negotiators of the P5+1 – the five permanent UN Security Council members, plus Germany – expires.

And despite the April 2 framework agreement reached in Lausanne, which paved the path for the final deal, hurdles remain – as admitted by both US and Iranian negotiators – and drafting the agreement is not easy.

“The devil is in the details,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York recently. He was speaking at NYU, as his team began working on the draft agreement in the shadows of last week’s UN conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Zarif did not hide his desire to reach a deal – despite all the difficulties faced: “We believed we needed an excuse to implement the solution, not break the solution.”

Tehran is thought to be worried that inspections of its military sites could be a ruse for foreign spies to infiltrate and estimate Iran’s military capabilities.


From an Iranian point of view, the “devil” may be the timing of the crucial lifting of crippling sanctions, with Tehran’s leadership insisting that sanctions be revoked immediately as the deal is signed.

For the United States, the “devil” may be the granting of unconditional access for IAEA inspectors to any military or nuclear sites – something vehemently ruled out by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran – when Tehran accepts additional protocols to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, told reporters that the agreement’s first draft was “full of disputes and parentheses which we have to decide on later”. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham, meanwhile, said Iran must not accept “exceptional inspections” as a condition for striking the nuclear deal.

Ruse for foreign spies

Tehran is thought to be worried that inspections of its military sites could be a ruse for foreign spies to infiltrate and estimate Iran’s military capabilities.

There is no part of the additional NPT protocol that mandates the inspection of non-nuclear sites, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, said in April.

The extra chapter of the NPT – which has yet to be agreed to by Iran’s parliament – allows inspectors to study the vicinities of non-nuclear sites, say analysts, but Western powers are deliberately misinterpreting the treaty in a way that would see inspectors enter the sites themselves. Iran will not allow this, officials say.

But these disputes are not the real threats that might jeopardise a final deal. The real threat lies elsewhere, in the geopolitical space where there is no dialogue between neighbours and the flames of mistrust and sectarian deviance consume the region.

Wendy Sherman, the US under-secretary of state at the centre of Iran negotiations, has reportedly asked other nations not to engage with Tehran until the final nuclear deal is reached.

“I would say ‘hold your horses’,” she said. “We are not quite at an agreement yet.” 

Sherman is less concerned by additional NPT protocols or the timeline of lifting sanctions than she is by Iran’s role in regional conflicts.

Some observers maintain that these “regional conflicts” are nothing more than Iran and Saudi Arabia jockeying for position in the neighbourhood. But if Iran can improve its standing in this lethal competition by striking a nuclear deal with the West, Saudi Arabia will be looking to boost its military capability to counter-balance Iran’s growing influence.

And this is exactly what has happened. Arms deals worth tens of billions of dollars were agreed to during last week’s visit of French President Francois Hollande to Gulf leaders in Riyadh.

While this tension is good and profitable for the world’s arms dealers, any provocation at this sensitive time is just what the US fears most – prompting Washington to warn Iran off getting any more involved in the violence plaguing the region.

Profitable tension

An Iranian cargo plane, which Tehran said was carrying medical aid for Yemen, was forced to abandon its mission at Sanaa airport after Saudi jets bombed the runway and air traffic control tower.

Fortunately, the plane escaped. Had it been destroyed, it would have fanned the flames of tension into a full-scale confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh playing out in Yemen – something which continues to worry many in the region.

“We want to have dialogue with our neighbours,” Zarif told the NYU audience last month. “Sectarian strife is dangerous for our region.”

Washington believes an Iran deal can help stabilise and secure the restive region, ending any potential nuclear threat and promoting business activity by lifting sanctions. A secure and economically active Iran will help it become a responsible and accountable regional neighbour, US officials argue.

But while many are optimistic over a final deal – coming with a change in Iran’s attitude and behaviour – many are preparing for the post-agreement consequences.

And any unexpected turn of events, such as Iran engaging further in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, could jeopardise the past several years of diplomatic talks, held in good faith, and transform the region into the roaring furnace of the worst conflict the world has yet known.

The invitation to Camp David is not so the White House can seek approval for the final deal with Tehran. President Obama merely wants to assure the US’ old friends that the deal will be of benefit to everyone in the region wishing to live in peace and prosperity – and that Iran may find itself accountable to cooperate with regional neighbours on many issues.

“The region is our priority. Daesh [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is no longer just a problem in Syria and Iraq, as it is recruiting in Afghanistan,” Zarif told his NYU audience. “Iran and Saudi Arabia have a common interest in fighting this.”

Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian journalist, TV commentator and author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth – a Memoir of Iran. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.