U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting with Gulf state officials in Saudi Arabia Thursday, sought to ease their concerns about an Iran nuclear deal, saying that America would not "take our eye off Iran’s destabilizing actions" in the Middle East.
Kerry arrived in Riyadh late Wednesday, after holding three days of meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in Switzerland, aiming to reach a framework agreement with Tehran by a March 31 deadline.
The United States' Gulf allies, particularly the Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia, worry that a nuclear accord will not stop Iran from gaining the bomb. They are also concerned it would ease international pressure on Tehran and give the Islamic Republic more room to intervene in regional issues.
"Even as we engage in these discussions with Iran around this program, we will not take our eye off Iran's destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen particularly," Kerry told reporters in Riyadh.
No 'grand bargain'
Speaking at a news conference in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Kerry said a nuclear agreement would not be part of a "grand bargain" with Iran and that the United States would continue to fully support its partners in the Gulf against Iranian interference.
"Nothing will be different the day after this agreement, if we reach one, with respect to any other issues that challenge us in this region, except we will have taken steps to guarantee that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," he explained.
Kerry met Thursday with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council Bahrain, which includes Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of which are Sunni-led states unnerved by Shi’ite Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and its increasing assertiveness throughout the region.
The so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany is trying to strike an accord that would prevent Tehran – Riyadh’s regional rival – from developing a nuclear bomb.
In return, the West would ease punishing sanctions on Iran, which insists its nuclear program is purely civilian.
Of efforts to forge a framework agreement with Iran on its nuclear program by the end of March, Kerry said, "We have made progress, but there do remain serious gaps that need to be resolved."
"It may be that Iran cannot say yes to the type of deal that provides the assurances that the international community requires."
Kerry alluded to the next round of talks beginning March 15, saying "we expect soon thereafter to know whether Iran will in fact be able to make the tough decision."
A senior State Department official said Wednesday that U.S. President Barack Obama would assess at the end of March whether it is worthwhile to proceed with the talks.
Meets with King Salman
Later, Kerry met with King Salman at his ranch near Riyadh, the ancestral home of the Saud family.
Kerry and U.S. officials including U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joseph Westphal and Assistant Secretary Anne Paterson walked through a courtyard into a long room where they met the king.
In addition to Iran’s nuclear status, Kerry and Gulf officials are expected to discuss issues of regional concern, including unrest in Yemen and coalition efforts to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Shi'ite Houthi rebels seized control of the capital in January and placed U.S.-backed Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest. Later, Hadi fled detention and went to a new base in the southern city of Aden.
At a February forum hosted by the Bookings Institution, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine said the Houthis are an "internally focused political movement" that is unlikely to voluntarily relinquish power.
"They are a political force. They are a security force," Bodine said. "They are there and they are not going to step down."
Kerry and Gulf officials are also expected to discuss coalition efforts to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria before wrapping up his visit to Saudi Arabia and traveling to London.
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.