The United States and its Gulf allies on Thursday (May 14) agreed to deepen their military partnership and jointly counter external threats, and pledged to help the Gulf states beef up "maritime security" against any "external attacks" in the world's most important oil routes - a clear reference to worries about recent Iranian actions.
Iranian naval vessels fired what appeared to be warning shots over a Singapore-flagged vessel in international waters in the Gulf on Thursday. The vessel safely reached a UAE port, the captain of the oil and chemical vessel, Alpine Eternity, told Channel NewsAsia.
Addressing reporters after a Camp David summit with six Gulf leaders, US President Barack Obama said: "I am reaffirming our ironclad commitment to the security of our Gulf partners.
"As we've declared in our joint statement, the United States is prepared to work jointly with Gulf Cooperation Council member states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state's territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the UN charter," he said.
"The United States will stand by our GCC partners against external attack and will deepen and extend cooperation that we have."
In the statement, the leaders said they agreed "to enhance their work to improve security cooperation, especially on fast-tracking arms transfers, as well as on counter-terrorism, maritime security, cyber security, and ballistic missile defence".
And the statement specifically named Iran, a traditional foe of both Washington and the Sunni-led Gulf Arab monarchies, as one of the threats they would work together to deter.
"The United States and GCC member states oppose and will work together to counter Iran's destabilising activities in the region," the statement said.
Obama called the summit to reassure nervous Gulf allies that the United States is not turning its back on them even as it is trying to forge a deal with Tehran to limit Iran's nuclear programme.
However, only two out of six Gulf heads of state accepted the invitation to visit the presidential mountain retreat, in what was widely seen as a snub to the US leader.
Around the table, Obama faced the tough task of convincing sceptical emirs, princes and sheikhs that his ambition to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran will not come at their expense.
Iran stands to regain in excess of US$100 billion in blocked cash if sanctions are lifted - cash the Gulf states believe could help fund the Islamic republic's "destabilizing" activities in the region.
"Most of the destabilizing activity that Iran engages in is low-tech, low-cost activity," Obama said, indicating that he believed Iran would be more interested in fixing its economy than bumper weapons buys.
Gulf states are not so sure, and had asked the United States to provide a written guarantee of their security.
TREATY TALK REBUFFED
But that suggestion has been rebuffed. "We're not initiating treaties, mutual defence treaties," said senior Obama advisor Ben Rhodes. "That is a very complicated piece of business."
Such a pact would be difficult to pass through a pro-Israeli Congress, and the White House sees asymmetric threats and internal unease at closed political systems as a greater security priority.
The Gulf states had to settle for progress on ballistic missile defence, joint military exercises and cyber and maritime security initiatives.
But Obama also insisted that close security ties with Gulf nations were not designed to box in Iran. "The purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran," he said.
The Gulf states believe the United States is not doing enough to prevent what they say is Iran's fuelling of the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq that have thrown the Middle East into deep crisis.
The assembled leaders did not have to look hard for evidence of the seriousness of their task.
Even as the leaders gathered, it emerged that Iran's Revolutionary Guard had fired on a commercial ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, the Islamic State executed 26 civilians in Syria and, amid a shaky truce in Yemen, Sanaa recalled its envoy to Tehran.
The Arab and largely Sunni Muslim states also fear the nuclear deal could be a harbinger of closer US ties with their Persian and Shiite arch-foe.
Obama's relationship with the Gulf had already been strained by his perceived quickness to welcome democratic Arab Spring revolts and a reduced dependence on Gulf oil.
The United States and the ultra-conservative Gulf monarchies have close ties that go back decades, their mutual interests trumping their vastly different national ideologies. In 1980, in the wake of a crippling oil shock precipitated by Iran's Islamic Revolution, then-president Jimmy Carter pledged to come to the defence of vital oil-producing Gulf states.
That policy was made manifest a decade later, when president George Bush sent troops to Kuwait when it was invaded by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Today, the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain and a US military command centre with substantial troops is stationed in Qatar.