U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry begins a trip Monday to Europe and Saudi Arabia, where he will hold talks on issues including efforts to combat the Islamic State group, rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia over separatist unrest in Ukraine, and Iran nuclear negotiations.
The secretary will be away from Washington when the Israeli prime minister speaks to Congress, opposing the Iranian nuclear talks.
Kerry’s first stop is Geneva, where he will address the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The council is holding a four-week session to address concerns that include atrocities committed by Islamic State militants in Iraq, the 2014 Gaza conflict and the human rights situation in areas including North Korea, the Central African Republic and Palestinian territories.
While in Geneva, Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The U.S. and its Western allies have been urging Russia to fully abide by the terms of a cease-fire deal for Ukraine, announced early last month, that calls for Russia to end what Western powers have called Moscow’s support for pro-Russian separatists.
Matthew Rojansky, a Russia and Ukraine analyst at the Wilson Center, said Russian involvement in Ukraine is likely to continue to be an “irritant” to the U.S. and its allies.
“Ukraine is really a survival issue for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. That won’t change," Rojansky said.
Even if the situation on the ground in Ukraine stabilizes over the next few years, Rojansky said there would still be an ongoing “geopolitical, ideological and moral contest” in Ukraine and the outcome is important to Russia.
Kerry, Zarif to meet
In Switzerland, Kerry will also meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as part of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.
The two sides have been working to reach an agreement on Iran’s uranium enrichment levels that addresses Western concerns that Iran has nuclear weapons ambitions. Iran, in return, is seeking relief from international sanctions.
The talks come at a critical time. Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1, have been trying to reach a framework agreement by the end of March. The two sides hope to have a final agreement by the end of June.
In remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. negotiating team, said the talks have been “difficult,” “complicated” and “tough.” But she added the desired results would be worthwhile.
“Given what the president has set out for us to do, if we are able to do it, the world will judge it as a good thing,” Sherman said. “That it is the way to ensure that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon and no other pathway will get us there."
The secretary's trip comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to Washington to deliver his controversial address to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday.
Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a presidential campaign, has told fellow Likud Party members that by making concessions to the Iranians, the United States and its partners have given up on their commitment to keep Iran from being able to build a nuclear weapon.
The Obama administration is angry that Netanyahu was invited to speak without consulting the White House, and President Barack Obama has announced he will not meet with the prime minister during his visit.
Yemen, IS militants
In Riyadh, Kerry will meet with King Salman and other Saudi officials to discuss regional unrest, including the U.S.-led coalition efforts to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
The talks come on the heels of a recent White House summit on combatting violent extremism where Kerry spoke at a ministerial conference.
“Terror is their obsession. It’s what they do,” he said. “If we let them, their singleness of purpose could actually wind up giving them a comparative advantage."
Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute, said the U.S.-led coalition’s progress in fighting Islamic State militants has been uneven, with better results in Iraq than in Syria.
“The fact that ISIS has an enormous sanctuary in Syria, yes, makes the fight in Iraq harder because they have the ability to retreat into Syria and regroup and attack again,” he said, referring to an acronym for the Islamist group.
Salem also said the coalition’s main “failing” is that it has not adequately supported the “non-radical” opposition in Syria, with money, resources, arms and training.
Kerry and Saudi officials are also expected to discuss Yemen’s unrest. World powers have been looking for ways to help stabilize Yemen after Shi’ite Houthi rebels overran Sana’a in September and forced Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to announce his resignation.
Kerry wraps up his week in London where he will meet with Gulf ministers to discuss shared regional concerns.