Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to the Middle East on Friday for security talks in Egypt and discussions in Qatar with Arab foreign ministers whose countries are wary of the nuclear deal struck with Iran. He will not visit Israel, America's foremost Mideast ally and the primary foreign opponent of the Iran agreement.
U.S. officials rejected suggestions that Kerry's omission of Israel from the itinerary signaled that the Obama administration had given up trying to convince Israeli leaders of the merits of the Iran deal. They noted that Defense Secretary Ash Carter had visited the Jewish state in mid-July and that contacts with Israeli officials continue to be robust.
The last time Kerry spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on July 16, two days after the Iran deal was concluded.
Officials said the Iran-related portion of the trip was primarily designed to follow-up on a May meeting that President Barack Obama hosted for Arab leaders at Camp David at which the U.S. promised them enhanced security cooperation and expedited defense sales to guard against a potential Iranian threat. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss Kerry's trip publicly, said the talks in Qatar would take stock of progress made on those goals, particularly since the Iran deal was signed.
One U.S. official said that Kerry would use the meeting with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council to "try to respond to any remaining questions they might have, hopefully satisfy them and ensure that they are supporting our effort going forward."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq in a similar tour earlier this week to talk to his counterparts about the Iran deal.
Saudi Arabia is the largest and most influential member of the council and has been publicly supportive of the Iran deal, albeit with reservations. Just this week, the State Department authorized the sale to Saudi Arabia of $5.4 billion in Patriot missiles and related equipment along with $500 million in ammunition.
In addition to Iran, Kerry and the Arab ministers are expected to look closely at the situation in Syria and Iraq, which continue to be ravaged by conflict and the spread of the Islamic State extremist group, the officials said. Kerry has said he plans to meet separately in Doha with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss Syria, Iran and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
Kerry's first stop will be in Cairo where he will participate on Sunday in a strategic dialogue with Egyptian officials that has been on hiatus because of political unrest since 2009. Despite its continuing human rights concerns, the Obama administration is increasing military assistance to Egypt as it confronts growing threats from extremists, particularly on the Sinai peninsula.
Sinai-based militants have launched increasingly sophisticated attacks in recent months that have killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers and police. The latest wave of violence began after the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi two years ago.
U.S. military assistance to Egypt had been on hold until earlier this year due to human rights and democracy concerns in the wake of Morsi's ouster but was resumed after the administration decided to waive those provisions for national security reasons.
The U.S. announced this week it would be delivering eight F-16 warplanes to Egypt on Friday as part of an ongoing military support package to help the Egyptians combat terrorism. Four more F-16s are to be delivered this fall.
Some lawmakers and numerous advocacy groups are urging Kerry to raise human rights issues with Egyptian authorities, including the arrests of dissidents and journalists, mass trials and sentencings of Morsi supporters. The U.S. officials said those concerns would be raised at all of Kerry's meetings in Cairo and noted that the State Department's top diplomat for human rights and democracy would be accompanying him.
Broadening U.S.-Egyptian trade and economic ties will also be on the table during Kerry's Egypt visit, which comes just days before the country inaugurates a second, parallel waterway to allow two-way traffic on the Suez Canal. Egyptian officials are hoping the opening will boost its flagging economy.
According to a short statement issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday, Sameh Shoukri and Kerry discussed on the phone preparations for the strategic dialogue sessions and the bilateral relations between the two countries.
They held talks over the latest developments in the Middle East region as well as the war on terrorism.
In a previous media statement issued by foreign ministry spokesperson Badr Abdel-Atti, the upcoming dialogue is aimed at boosting the bilateral strategic partnership between Egypt and the US.
Relations between Cairo and Washington have become strained since the ouster of Morsi in 2013.
After leaving the Middle East, Kerry will travel to Southeast Asia, stopping in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam before returning to Washington.
*This story was edited by Ahram Online.