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Worries About Iran Overshadow Obama-Arab Summit

A summit U.S. President Barack Obama called with Arab leaders at the presidential retreat Camp David May 13 and 14 has been marred from the outset and overshadowed by worries about Iran's proxy military ventures in the Gulf region.

Obama called the meeting to try to assure Gulf Cooperation Council leaders that the nuclear limitation deal he is negotiating with Iran and European powers will increase stability and security in the region. But most Gulf leaders have been wary of the deal and concerned that the United States has neglected to rein in Iran's military ventures in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen while focusing on the nuclear deal.

While all sides insisted there was no boycott or snub intended, only two of six Gulf leaders planned to attend the meetings at the Camp David retreat rarely used in the Obama administration for such grand diplomatic gestures.

Saudi Arabian King Salman caught the most attention by pulling out at the last minute, sending in his place Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the King's influential son Mohammed bin Salman.

King Hamad of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia's close ally, also will miss the Washington talks. Oman's Sultan Qaboos has been ill and is not attending, while UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is also unwell and has not appeared in public since last year.

That leaves only the leaders of Kuwait and Qatar attending the summit.

While Obama hopes to contribute to world peace by sealing a nuclear deal with Iran, the Gulf's Sunni leaders view Shiite Iran as the main source of instability in their region, and are showing their disagreement and lack of respect for Obama by being no-shows, analysts and diplomats said.

"The Americans are only concerned with the nuclear issue of Iran. They are not concerned with Iranian intervention in our part of the world," said Jamal Khashoggi, an analyst and head of the Alarab News Channel, who is linked to the royal family.

There is also a worry that a nuclear deal with Iran, by bringing an end to western economic sanctions, could unfreeze tens of billions of dollars that Tehran could use to buy weapons or augment support for proxy groups.

"Underlying all of this is how do we confront Iran's interference in the affairs of the countries of the region," said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

Jubeir insisted that the King's absence from the summit is not a "snub" or "related in any way, shape or form to any disagreement between the two countries." He said the King is staying at home to oversee the five-day cease-fire in Saudi Arabia's conflict with the Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen.

In light of their concerns about an increasingly adventurous Iran, some Gulf states had pressed for the summit to lead to a written guarantee that the U.S. would come to their defense -- a proposal U.S. officials rebuffed.

Gulf nations had also asked for access to high-tech weapons like the F-35 stealth fighter.

Washington is poised to offer new weapons under a push for a joint region-wide missile defense system, senior U.S. officials told Reuters.

"The conspiracy theorists of old have been proven right. The U.S. creates threats for us and then offers us more weapons systems. That does not bode well for us," said Sami Alfaraj, a Kuwaiti security adviser to the Gulf Council.

U.S. officials strenously objected to the notion May 11 that Gulf allies were downgrading their attendance to signal dissatisfaction with Obama's diplomacy with Shiite Iran ahead of a June 30 deadline for a landmark nuclear deal.

The White House announced that Obama had spoken by phone to Salman May 11, apparently trying to show that relations remained on a solid footing.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the administration was convinced that the president would have "the right group of people around the table" at Camp David. "These are the people responsible for the security portfolios."

Some diplomats in the region believe the absence from Camp David of King Salman and close ally King Hamad of Bahrain, host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, may backfire.

"Of course it is a snub. But I don't think Obama is going to put up with this. He wants the nuclear deal. It is the number one priority," a Western diplomat in the region told Reuters.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters