Kerry makes way to Saudi Arabia in bid to calm Iran jitters

A day after wrapping up ‘intense’ nuclear talks, secretary of state set to assure Riyadh that Tehran won’t get bomb

US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joseph Westphal, right, stands with Secretary of State John Kerry as he arrives at Riyadh Air Base, on Thursday, March 5, 2015, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci)
US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joseph Westphal, right, stands with Secretary of State John Kerry as he arrives at Riyadh Air Base, on Thursday, March 5, 2015, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci)

US Secretary of State John Kerry sought Thursday to ease Gulf Arab concerns about an emerging nuclear deal with Iran and explore ways to calm instability in Yemen and other troubled nations in the Middle East.

A day after wrapping up the latest round of Iran nuclear negotiations in Switzerland, and rebuffing concerns from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry was in Saudi Arabia for talks with senior officials from the Sunni-ruled Gulf states and the new Saudi monarch, King Salman.

Kerry met in the Saudi capital of Riyadh with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of which are unnerved by Shiite Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and its increasing assertiveness throughout the region.

US officials said Kerry will reassure them that a deal with Tehran will not allow Iran to get the bomb and won’t mean American complacency on broader security matters. Iran is actively supporting forces fighting in Syria and Iraq and is linked to Shiite rebels who recently toppled the US and Arab-backed government in Yemen.

Kerry will tell them that no matter what happens with the Iranian nuclear talks, the US will continue to confront “Iranian expansion” and “aggressiveness” in the region and work closely with the Gulf states on security and defense capabilities, according to American officials.

Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif wrapped up three days of “intense” nuclear negotiations in the Swiss lakeside town of Montreux with still no deal, as a March 31 deadline for a framework agreement looms.

“We’ve made some progress from where we were and important choices need to be made,” Kerry told reporters after the talks, with a senior State Department official adding that “tough challenges” had yet to be resolved.

Speaking a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stridently criticised an agreement he said would not stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, Kerry stressed that the purpose of negotiations was to “get the right deal, one that can withstand scrutiny.”

He cautioned that the so-called P5+1 countries — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany — negotiating with Iran would not “be distracted by external factors or politics.”

Netanyahu warned in his dramatic speech to the US Congress Tuesday that an agreement that was “supposed to prevent nuclear proliferation would instead spark a nuclear arms race in the most dangerous part of the planet.”

Kerry said that “any deal we reach would give us the intrusive access and verification measures necessary to confirm that Iran’s nuclear facilities are indeed on a peaceful path.”

“That would allow us to promptly detect any attempt to cheat or break out and then to respond appropriately.”

Zarif told Iranian news agency ISNA that “despite existing differences, a final deal is not too far off.”

He also told NBC news that a deal was close.

But he warned that the thorny issue of sanctions, which Iran wants lifted, risked torpedoing the deal.

“The Western countries, and especially the United States, must decide whether they want a nuclear deal or to continue the sanctions,” he said.

On Yemen, State Department officials said Kerry will reiterate that the US supports UN efforts to promote a dialogue leading to a political transition in Yemen, which is embroiled in a political crisis that threatens to split the country. The UN-mediated talks are aimed at breaking the political stalemate between the rebels known as the Houthis and Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Hadi fled the capital of Sanaa after being released from house arrest last month and is now based in the southern city of Aden, from where he has been meeting foreign diplomats, including the US ambassador. Hadi has called for the relocation of embassies to Aden, as several GCC members have done already.

The United States, which closed its embassy in Sanaa last month and evacuated its diplomatic staff, has no plans to relocate to Aden, although the US ambassador to Yemen, Matthew Tueller, met with Hadi in Aden on Monday. Until the crisis is resolved and the embassy reopened, Tueller and some of his staff will be based in an office at the US Consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, the officials said.

In addition to the Iranian nuclear issue and Yemen, Kerry will also discuss the continually deteriorating conditions in Syria and the fight against the Islamic State group there and in Iraq.

US officials said Kerry would stress that the United States does not see a military solution to the conflict in Syria, but also does not think a political solution is possible while Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power.

AFP contributed to this report.

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