U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is launching a five-nation tour of the Middle East and South Asia on Friday in a bid to strengthen economic and security ties and ease concerns about the Iran nuclear deal.
Kerry will begin his trip in Cairo, where he and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry will co-host a strategic dialogue, focusing on a broad range of issues.
“The real challenge for Secretary Kerry in his meetings in Egypt is how to discuss the regional picture – the regional fight against terrorism and the domestic situation in Egypt – and how the two fit together,” said Michele Dunne, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Warplanes to Egypt
Ahead of the trip, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo announced the U.S was delivering eight F-16 fighter jets to Egypt as part of “ongoing” support to Egypt and the region.
“The F-16s provide a valuable capability that is needed during these times of regional instability,” said Major General Charles Hooper, a senior U.S. Embassy defense official.
In March, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. was lifting a hold on U.S. military aid to Egypt that was put in place following the 2013 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.
The U.S. provides Egypt with about $1.3 billion in annual military assistance.
Despite the resumption of aid, U.S. officials have continued to voice concerns about Egypt’s repression of Morsi supporters.
In Qatar, Kerry will meet with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, a group that has raised concerns that the Iran nuclear deal could be destabilizing to the region.
Some Gulf ministers fear that the sanctions relief for Iran, which would result from the country’s compliance with the deal, could empower Tehran to widen its influence in the region and broaden its support of militant groups.
Earlier this week, Kerry defended the Iran nuclear deal.
“I understand the fear,” said Kerry in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But we believe what we have laid out here is a way of making Israel and the region, in fact, safer.”
It is uncertain whether Kerry will be able to allay Gulf allies' nuclear concerns about Iran, said Daniel Serwer, a Middle East Institute scholar and professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“It seems to me if I lived in the Gulf, I would feel a lot more comfortable with Iran backed off from nuclear weapons and not being able to pursue them for 10 or 15 years than I would without a deal,” Serwer said.
Kerry, Lavrov in Doha
While in Doha, Kerry will also meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. They will discuss security issues, including efforts to combat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
State Department officials said they would also discuss the situation in Ukraine, where the government has been battling Russian-backed separatists.
On Thursday, the U.S. imposed more sanctions on individuals and entities in connection with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
John Smith, acting director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said the action underscored U.S. resolve to “maintain pressure on Russia for violating international law and fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the action was a way to strengthen existing sanctions so that they would continue to have “maximum impact.”
South Asia ties
From Qatar, Kerry will travel to Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The three Southeast Asian nations are among the 12 countries involved in talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that would cut tariffs and trade barriers among participants.
In Kuala Lumpur, Kerry will also attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum.
In both Singapore and Vietnam, he will discuss bilateral and regional issues. While in Hanoi, Kerry will also take part in an event marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic ties.