Kerry in Riyadh to reassure allies over Iran

US Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to Saudi Arabia Saturday, again sought to reassure his Gulf allies concerned over perceived warming of ties between Washington and Iran.

He also announced that the Syria Support Group of 20 nations and organisations will meet “very shortly” to help push peace in the war-ravaged country.

Kerry spoke in Riyadh after attending a meeting with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir and other foreign ministers from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.

“The United States remains concerned about some of the activities that Iran is engaged in in other countries,” Kerry told reporters, citing as an example Iran’s “support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah”.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours perceive a lack of US engagement in the region, particularly in the face of what they see as Iran’s “interference” in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Those feelings crystallised with the historic international deal which this month lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in return for a scaling back of its nuclear capabilities.

Kerry has long sought to reassure his Gulf allies about the overtures to Iran, the world’s leading Shiite power whose relations with Sunni rival Saudi Arabia have worsened this month.

Saudi Arabia and some of its allies cut diplomatic ties this month with Iran after protesters there burned Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran and a consulate in the second city of Mashhad.

The violence occurred after the kingdom executed dissident Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a driving force behind anti-government protests.

Nimr was one of four Shiites put to death on January 2 alongside 43 Sunnis. All were convicted of “terrorism”.

Jubeir told reporters that he did not see a “coming together” of the US and Iran.

“Iran remains the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism,” Jubeir said.

“Overall I think the United States is very aware of the danger of Iran’s mischief and nefarious activities… I don’t believe the United States is under any illusion as to what type of government Iran is”.

– Syria peace talks –

During his one-day visit Kerry, is to hold talks with King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the defence minister.

He will also meet Riad Hijab, general coordinator of Syria’s largest opposition coalition, which is based in Riyadh, ahead of UN-brokered peace talks.

Kerry has expressed confidence that those talks will go ahead on Monday in Geneva despite a dispute over who would represent the country’s opposition.

Kerry said the Syria Support Group will meet “very shortly” after the first round of Syria talks “because we want to keep the process moving”.

The group of 20 nations and organisations has devised a plan for a political transition aimed at ending the nearly five-year war in Syria that has cost more than 260,000 lives and displaced millions.

The group includes Saudi Arabia, the US and other countries who say President Bashar al-Assad can have no role in Syria’s future, and Assad’s allies Iran and Moscow.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran — who support opposite sides in the Syria and Yemen wars — have caused concern around the globe.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday said the attack on the Saudi embassy attack was wrong, and against Islam.

“That was, I think from our perspective, extremely noteworthy,” a senior US State Department official said before Kerry’s arrival in Riyadh.

But the State Department official said neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia wants the bilateral problems to affect issues like the Syrian peace negotiations.

“We also, of course, think that it’s important that the Saudis and the Iranians be able to have some kind of modus vivendi, if you will,” that would allow a return to political negotiations on Yemen, the official said.

A Saudi-led military coalition since March has been supporting local forces and the internationally recognised government against the Iran-backed Huthi Shiite rebels.

On Sunday Kerry travels to Laos, in Southeast Asia.


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