Senior Administration Officials Preview of the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum
MODERATOR: All right. We are delighted this morning for our last full day at the UN General Assembly, although the Secretary will have some meetings on Monday, to give you a preview of the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council meeting of the Strategic Cooperation Forum, the second meeting in a year.
Here to give you a little sense of what we expect today and how this forum has been working, we have [Senior Administration Official One], we have [Senior Administration Official Two], we have [Senior Administration Official Three]. [Senior Administration Official One] will give some opening comments. He is hereafter Senior Administration Official One. [Senior Administration Official Two] is Two, and [Senior Administration Official Three] is Three.
Take it away, [Senior Administration Official One].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, thank you very much, and thank you for coming. And as [Moderator] mentioned, this is the second meeting of the U.S. GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum. It will take place this afternoon. It’ll be led for the U.S. by Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta as well as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.
As you may know, the Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of the GCC have regularly met at UNGA to discuss challenges and opportunities in the Gulf region and beyond. And obviously, this continues that important coordination, but today’s meeting also builds off the first meeting of the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, which was launched last March in Riyadh.
The SCF, as we call it, elevates and solidifies our cooperation with the GCC and the member-states in several key ways. Under the SCF, the U.S. interagency is fully involved. The inclusion of Secretary Panetta, who also attended the GCC ministerial last year, as well as Tom Donilon, who will be the first National Security Advisor who attend one of these meetings, enables key partners of our National Security team to coordinate with our partners. It’s also a clear sign of the importance we give these relationships and issues.
We’re creating a formal process, not just for general coordination, but to advance shared action. The U.S.-GCC ministerials at UNGA have long provided a crucial forum for exchanging views on important issues. The SCF provides a more structured framework for ministerial meetings and for guiding the work of a set of committees to take coordinated steps across the security, political, and economic realms.
For instance, the forum provides opportunities to discuss plans to deepen cooperation on joint maritime security efforts. Another area which the United States has hopes to deepen cooperation is in ballistic missile defense cooperation. This is an issue that came up in March. Since that time, we have had expressions of interest from our partners in the Gulf – further expressions of interest to – in additional missile defense capabilities. And our ultimate goal – the United States’ ultimate goal, is to develop – help the region of the GCC develop a missile defense architecture, working together to provide ballistic missile defense.
The United States also envisions standing up mechanisms on these issues – on maritime security, ballistic missile defense, but also counterterrorism in the near future, for cooperation with the GCC.
We recognize the GCC states and the GCC as an institution are taking on an important regional and global role. This is something that we welcome. The GCC countries taken together would rank 10th as an export market for the United States. Trade between the two sides is growing, and increasing cooperation among its members and with the United States in areas like health, technology, economics, is good news for the United States, as it increases the effectiveness of our partnership. The signing on September 25th of the U.S.-GCC Framework on Trade, Economic Investment, and Technical Cooperation is a concrete example of where we’re going.
The Middle East is currently a region marked by transition with – it comes with both opportunities and risks. It’s also marked by the persistent threat posed by Iran’s proscribed nuclear activities and interference beyond its borders. It is more critical than ever to forge a comprehensive strategy together with our GCC partners in order to address these serious challenges.
I do want to emphasize that over time this forum will focus not only on security and military matters, but also other areas of mutual interest and new areas of cooperation between the United States and the GCC, such as on science and technology, public health, and trade. That’s why we are calling this a Strategic Forum, not a Security Forum. In the time between our biannual ministerial meetings, senior officials and experts from both sides plan to gather on a regular basis.
We’re also going to be planning on issuing a joint communique following the meeting this afternoon which will highlight the areas of discussion and consensus on regional security cooperation and addressing common political challenges.
So with that, we’ll be happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: [Senior Administration Official Two], do you want to just give a little flavor of the first exercise that we’ve had, the maritime exercise, so we’ve already started to operationalize the forum?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure, okay. I mean, one important area of cooperation has been the shared commitment to maritime security, the free flow of commerce in the area. And a very tangible and concrete example of this greater cooperation was the recently completed International Mine Countermeasures Exercise. It involved 12 navies from over 30 countries. It covered a significant area. I mean, the international waters and air space of the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Red Sea, that’s 2.5 million of square miles of water. So it’s a large place. And actually, it was defensive in nature, but is going to be the first in a series of these recurring exercises to bring them together, and I think is a tangible example of what the structured dialogue that [Senior Administration Official One] talked about really brings about.
MODERATOR: And it was a mine countermeasures exercise?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yes. International Mine Countermeasure Exercise.
QUESTION: You said 12 navies from 30 countries?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Over 30 countries.
MODERATOR: The 12 navies, and then you have observers and others, obviously, in the military exercise.
Questions, guys? Please.
QUESTION: Mina al-Oraibi of Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, so from the region. It’s very interesting – the GCC meeting. I wanted to take your last point about the maritime exercises that you had. You said these were going to be the first. These were defensive, but there would be others, so would other exercises that you envision not only defensive?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Right now our plan is for them to be defensive. I think my point is that they should be meeting with some regularity, where we can work on interoperability, react to the issues. And it’s the same purpose of this. It would just happen with regularity, because the more you have them, the more you can work closely together (inaudible).
QUESTION: And is Iran the main focus when we’re thinking about these operations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, the focus is to ensure the free flow of commerce in the straits overall, which is in all countries’ interests, all those who participate, all the GCC countries, and frankly, it’s in Iran’s interest as well. Obviously, the GCC countries have been concerned about Iran’s statements about – that would threaten the free flow of commerce of the area, and I’d just underscore the point that the international community and the United States is concerned about any disruption of shipping in the region by Iran or its surrogates.
MODERATOR: Isn’t it fair to say, [Senior Administration Official Two], that exercises of this kind always have a defensive scenario?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yes.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, that’s a good point. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: No doubt. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, it should be –
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think it was just so there would be no misunderstanding. When you hear military exercises, there should be no misunderstanding that these are defensive in nature.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: That’s right. When we talk about our – we assume defensive --
MODERATOR: Yeah, exactly.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible.)
MODERATOR: Steve, did you have something?
QUESTION: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the missile defense part of the picture. You talked about it last year, and there have been some, it seems like, individual developments with – in terms of sales with individual countries.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.
QUESTION: But are you closer to knitting it together in a sort of interoperable way?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think that you’re right that there – as I mentioned, since the last meeting, we’ve had further expressions of interest from countries in the region in developing their missile defense capabilities. We hope that we will be having announcements in the near future regarding those expressions of interest. And – but in terms of – it’s our goal, it’s the United States’ goal, to encourage the GCC countries to develop this missile defense architecture, because as we discussed in March, to truly protect the region by missile defense, it requires a regional approach. To be able to defend against a missile in your territory often requires radars and other types of capabilities outside your territory.
So that is our goal, and that’s what we are continuing to discuss with the GCC. It will take time. These are countries that do not have a history of coordinating on these types of issues, and the very fact that they’re coming together and being – and willing to talk about it is a very positive step. And we’re continuing to build on that momentum, and with the ultimate goal of developing this type of architecture.
QUESTION: When you say announcements in the near future, do you mean, say, 3 o’clock this afternoon?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No, no, no, no, no. Not today. It will be in the coming months.
MODERATOR: [Senior Administration Official One], wouldn’t you say it’s fair to say that these countries also don’t – many of them don’t have a tradition of foreign affairs and defense even talking to each other well and working together well? So we’re also trying to build up a culture of collaboration within countries and among countries.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Right. And that’s one of the reasons why we have Secretary Panetta and National Security Advisor Donilon attending, is to demonstrate on our side that we have an interest in working together with them on these types of issues. And so we’re hoping to encourage the GCC countries to engage in that same type of cooperation, which we think will make for more effective conversations and discussions.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. I missed something because we’re – they’re trying to screen us (inaudible). Is this a new security forum that you’re talking about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No, no. The first meeting was in March of the Strategic Cooperation Forum, and we – as I mentioned in my beginning remarks, there has been, for several years, meetings with the GCC countries at UNGA. But we have the – what’s new about this is the nature of the agenda and the topics that we’re discussing. And the first Strategic Cooperation Forum which took place in March had on the agenda security issues and other issues that were broader than the previous discussions at the UN General Assembly.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And we can go back to last year’s UNGA meeting when, for the first time, Secretary Panetta, the Defense Secretary, joined Secretary Clinton, and from that sprang the idea of trying to unite the defense and foreign policy elements into the forum, which is now beginning to mature a little bit more as we’ve gone on through the year.
MODERATOR: So really, this conversation’s only been happening for a year, and the forum’s only been up for six months. Okay.
QUESTION: Can you just go into a little bit more detail on the missile defense again? I remember – maybe this is outdated, but back in March, there were still issues about where the radar installations would be, what different assets that each of them had. Some of them had some rather good U.S.-made stuff, some of them didn’t. And without giving anything way – or unless you want to –
MODERATOR: [Senior Administration Official Two], Brad will take if you – (laughter).
QUESTION: Just talk about where you are in kind of harmonizing this whole thing.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Again, we kicked off the conversation in March. Admiral Fox of Central – NAVCENT gave a briefing on missile defense to the foreign ministers, which engendered a great deal of interest from the members of the GCC. We have had – as I mentioned previously, we have had expressions – further expressions of interest among the GCC countries in acquiring missile defense capabilities from the United States, which we hope in the coming months to be able to talk further about.
But we are just at the beginning of this process through the Strategic Cooperation Forum. It’s the United States’ goal to help the GCC develop this regional architecture, and these conversations are designed to move further along that goal – towards that goal.
MODERATOR: If I may, I think the point here is as these countries look at acquiring aspects of a system, we want to make sure we’re channeling that interest and energy in a way that ultimately the system can be knitted together. It’s not everybody’s got a baseball bat but nobody’s got a ball, that kind of thing.
QUESTION: But are they actually negotiating before they make their individual purchases or their individual contracts with the United States?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not --
QUESTION: Are they talking – I mean, is this something that they’re pre-clearing with their allies if they’re going to --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think that the important thing to understand is that if they are buying U.S. missile defense equipment, it’ll make it easier to knit that together, because by its nature, it’ll be more interoperable. But – so we want to encourage them to buy equipment that can be knitted together if – in the development of an architecture. And so – but at the same time, we are continuing to have conversations, both bilaterally but also through the Strategic Cooperation Forum, about how best to meet their missile defense needs.
QUESTION: Just a quick one, and it’s sort of a recast of my colleague’s question about the demining operations, but this one has to do with how the missile defense plan relates to the approach to Iran. Do you think – is the goal essentially to get a joint missile defense network that will change the strategic equation with Iran in the region? Is that what you’re really aiming for here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think our aim is to help our Gulf partners with their defense needs. And so there is a missile threat that they face. We want to help them face that threat as best we can. We think a missile defense architecture is the best way to help the countries defend themselves, and that our Gulf partners are looking to us to help them with their defense needs. So going forward, we will continue to have these conversations, both bilaterally as well with the GCC as a whole, about the best way to meet their defense needs.
QUESTION: Sorry, I just wanted to double check. So is the thrust of the meeting today going to be about missile defense, or is --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No. I think that that’s – it’s going to be one topic on the agenda, but it will not be the entire topic on the agenda. There’s a number of different issues, including regional issues. We haven’t talked about it much, but the region is undergoing dramatic change, and so we anticipate that there will be discussions of the dramatic changes in the region, including Syria, including Yemen. And so I think that the key to the Strategic Cooperation Forum is to marry the regional strategic context with ways that the countries can work together to address the changes and strategic threats in the region.
QUESTION: And Bahrain? Is Bahrain going to come up in any of this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, Bahrain is a member of the GCC, and they will be attending.
QUESTION: Well, I know. But will it be part of the discussion – the internal issues in Bahrain and how that affects GCC security?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: What I would think in the case of Bahrain is that we’re looking at Bahrain as a strategic partner in the region as one of the elements that we use there. So this is not an opportunity for us to look into our bilateral relationships with each of the unique nations at the table. We’re looking, more or less, at the overall context of the peninsula and how we can relate effectively to all of our partners there.
MODERATOR: We have other channels for dealing with these countries about internal issues, talking to them about reform concerns.
QUESTION: I mean, Bahrain especially --
MODERATOR: This is about knitting them together on the issues that they all face.
All right. Mina.
QUESTION: A final one just on Iraq. Previous administrations said that they would work to get Iraq more integrated with the region, especially with the GCC, and there’s been really wrought relationship between the current government and the rest of the GCC. Will that be something you talk about, especially in the Chapter 7 resolutions that Iraq is still working to end (inaudible)?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: We’ve certainly been working very closely with Iraq and Kuwait as the most principal neighbor in the Chapter 7 relationship. And we’re quite pleased so far with the progress that’s been made on getting out of Chapter 7 and moving on from there. And we think that this is an element that we can certainly encourage Kuwait and the GCC partners. We want to see Iraq fully reintegrated into the region, and that GCC has a real role to play in that. And we’re going to encourage all the partners, all of the neighbors, to see Iraq as a constructive member of the community.
QUESTION: So it will be – you expect it to be raised at the meeting --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I don’t know if it’s on the specific agenda, but it certainly could come up.
MODERATOR: Okay. And we will get you all the communique when it’s ready. Thanks, guys.