(Bloomberg) — Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to reassure the new Saudi king and Arab allies who are uneasy about the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Just two days after Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu raised alarms in a speech to Congress, Kerry in his talks Thursday will face quieter doubts from the Arab leaders who find themselves in the unusual situation of being on the same side of an issue as the Israeli leader. Like him, they are worried by Iran’s expansionism and the prospect that it eventually will succeed in developing nuclear weapons.
Kerry will tell them that that a nuclear deal with Iran will contribute to regional security and won’t affect U.S. efforts to thwart Iran’s conventional threats in the region, a State Department official said, briefing reporters anonymously under department protocol.
It’s not clear how persuasive he can be in light of Saudi complaints that the U.S. hasn’t done enough in places such as Syria, where Iran is bolstering President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and in Iraq, where Iran has grown more influential since the departure of U.S. combat forces.
While Netanyahu has sounded a public alarm over the prospective nuclear deal, the Saudis are “are playing a more subtle game,” according to Bruce Riedel, who’s followed Persian Gulf affairs for more than three decades at the Central Intelligence Agency and on the U.S. National Security Council staff.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, visiting at the invitation of King Salman, is expected to arrive in Riyadh on Wednesday ahead of Kerry. There long have been news reports that Saudi Arabia would turn to Pakistan, which secretly developed nuclear weapons, for help gaining a nuclear arsenal if Iran goes nuclear.
“The speculation in Islamabad is the king wants assurances from Sharif now that, if the Iran negotiations produce either a bad deal or no deal, Pakistan will live up to its longstanding commitment to Saudi security,” Riedel wrote in a commentary on the website of the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy institute where he’s a senior fellow.
“That is understood in Riyadh and Islamabad to include a nuclear dimension,” he wrote. “Salman apparently wants Sharif’s assurance reaffirmed before the end of March,” the target date for a political framework in the negotiations between six world powers and Iran.
Kerry is scheduled to meet with Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers Thursday morning, and then see the Saudi monarch at his palace in Diriyah, a town near Riyadh that has symbolic importance as the historic home of the al-Saud family and the capital of the first Saudi state, established in the 18th century.
That meeting will be followed by talks with Deputy Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, second in line to the throne, who as minister of interior oversees counterterrorism.
The Saudis are on edge because of what they see as Iranian support in neighboring Yemen for the Houthis, members of a branch of Shiite Islam who have pushed aside a government supported by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in a conflict that threatens to re-divide that country.
As far back as 2009, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks, bin Nayef warned U.S. officials of the growing danger in Yemen and called the Houthis “Hezbollah South,” a reference to the Iranian-armed Lebanese Shiite group that the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group.
Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni power in the region, is hostile to the Shiite Islamic Republic, with what amounts to proxy wars between them in Yemen and Syria.
“Yemen is the center of Saudi Arabia’s policy now,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva. The Saudis want support for a UN Security Council resolution allowing military intervention in Yemen, he said.
“Saudi Arabia will be ready to take the issue as far as possible to prevent the Houthis and Iranians from establishing” control there, Alani said.
In the volatile politics of the region, the Saudis and other Gulf Arab nations have said that the U.S. seems to be working in at least a de facto way with Iran in Syria, fighting against the Sunni extremists who call themselves Islamic State.
U.S. officials deny any coordination or other cooperation, though the impression that there is reinforces the narrative that President Barack Obama is seeking a nuclear deal as a step toward a broader American rapprochement with Iran.
Kerry will stress that, regardless of what happens with the nuclear negotiations, the U.S. will continue to confront Iranian aggression, the State Department official said on Tuesday. The U.S. will continue security cooperation with the Gulf Arab allies and look for ways to further strengthen their defense capabilities, he said.
The meeting with the king, which the U.S. official called a get-to-know-you opportunity, follows a visit by Obama and Kerry in January, shortly after the succession of Salman to the throne following the death of his brother King Abdullah.