Kerry arrives in Egypt to reset relations between US and Cairo

Relations between the two countries have been strained since the Egyptian military’s removal of the former president in 2013 and the ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

US secretary of state John Kerry arrived in Egypt on Saturday for the first “strategic dialogue” between Washington and Cairo since 2009. Carlos Barria/Reuters
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NEW YORK // John Kerry arrived in Egypt on Saturday to revive a long-stalled dialogue with Cairo before travelling to Qatar to reassure Gulf Arab allies about Washington’s pledges to enhance their security and its intentions towards Iran after the recent nuclear deal.

The US secretary of state’s talks with his Egyptian counterparts – the first “strategic dialogue” between the two sides since 2009 – will try to reset and broaden relations that have been strained since the Egyptian military’s removal of the former president in 2013 and the ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Amid concerns over human rights and the transition to democracy, in January 2014 the US congress put conditions on the annual US$1.3 billion (Dh4.77bn) in military aid to Egypt, a traditional ally. It came three months after the White House announced that it was suspending the delivery of major weapons systems, a move that particularly angered Cairo.

But with the rise of extremism in the region, led by ISIL, and the US forming a global coalition to fight the group, the Obama administration decided to re-engage with president Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s government and focus on shared security interests. The suspension of military aid and selivery of previously purchased weapons systems was lifted this year, with eight F-16 fighter jets delivered on Friday, ahead of today’s summit.

Egyptian officials had been pushing for the strategic dialogue for some time, in part as an official US endorsement of Mr El Sisi’s government.

Expanding trade and investment will also be on the agenda as Egyptian officials seek to boost the country’s economy.

However, the talks are unlikely to yield any significant changes or expansion of the relationship, analysts say, as Egypt has been superseded in US regional priorities by the Iran nuclear deal and the fight against ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

“There are tempered expectations about what the strategic dialogue is going to produce,” said Michael Hanna, an expert on US-Egypt ties at the Century Foundation think tank in New York. “They will put together an agenda in which there might be some ability to be collaborative and cooperative, but US policy is much less ambitious – they just want to get on with something even though they can see all the limitations and flaws in the relationship.”

The Iran nuclear deal and the fight against ISIL will be central to Mr Kerry’s meeting with the foreign ministers of the six GCC countries in Doha on Monday. He will provide details of the accord and, primarily, continue discussions on implementing US pledges of enhanced security and military cooperation to counter Iran and fight ISIL. The promises made during talks with Barack Obama at Camp David in May include streamlining of weapons sales, a key demand of Gulf countries.

Analysts said that these promises, as well as US cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, were intended to reassure Gulf countries wary of the nuclear deal with Tehran, and gain their public support for the accord.

Last week, the US state department allowed the sale to Riyadh of $500 million worth of ammunition resupplies likely to be used in the Yemen conflict, as well as $5.4bn worth of advanced Patriot PAC-3 missiles to upgrade the Saudi missile defences. These are likely to be used to defend military installations near the southern border with Yemen, analysts said.

US officials told the Associated Press that the Doha talks would take stock of progress on the US commitments and also “try to respond to any remaining questions they might have [regarding the Iran deal], hopefully satisfy them and ensure that they are supporting our effort going forward”.

Gulf countries have voiced cautious, conditional support for the nuclear deal, which they view as sufficient to address fears of proliferation but which raises questions about how the US will help to counter an empowered Iran freed of economic sanctions and an international arms embargo.

Gulf officials say that the US promises from Camp David remain unfulfilled.

“The administration needs to move with urgency to deliver on the key commitments that were made at Camp David,” said a source in Washington familiar with official Gulf deliberations. “So far it’s all been process. They need to move quickly from process to delivering on commitments.”

When the US and Saudi defence ministers met in Riyadh on July 22, they discussed enhanced training for special operations and counterterrorism forces, integrating Gulf and US air and missile-defence systems, AND enhanced cyber and maritime security, according to the Pentagon.

Most Gulf countries fear that Iran will be emboldened to project power through allied militant and proxy groups in the Gulf and elsewhere. “Certainly the Gulf states are going to be complaining that there was a bombing in Manama [last week] and [they will say that such incidents are] exactly what we’re going to see more of,” said David Roberts, a lecturer on Gulf politics at King’s College London.

Gulf countries also view the US administration with distrust over what officials say is a lack of a clear regional strategy, unenforced redlines and an enduring fear that Mr Obama seeks a greater role for Iran in the region to balance the Gulf states. US officials deny this charge but contradictory statements, sometimes from Mr Obama himself, have diluted this message.

In lobbying Congress – which has until mid-September to discuss and possibly vote on the deal – the White House maintained that the deal is mainly about capping Iran’s ability to make a bomb, and does not signal a broad change in Washington’s relations with Iran, an adversary and direct enemy of US regional allies.

Mr Kerry told a congressional panel last week that in Doha he would give “specifics of a proposal of how we’re going to push back against Iran”.

But US officials have also contradicted this position, stoking Gulf doubts over whether their security is a core principle of US foreign policy or a goal to be paid lip service as a means of garnering support for the Iran deal.

In December, Mr Obama told US public radio that Iran has “a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it because if they do ... it would be a very successful regional power”.

Gulf foreign ministers will be looking for Mr Kerry to dispel the confusion. “It’s not about weapons delivery, it is just concern that there is something happening in Washington, and Washington is not clear about it when it comes to talk to Gulf capitals,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a UAE-based analyst of Gulf politics. “If there is a way for Kerry to spell it out and give clarity to where Washington stands, I think that is all that is needed.”

Mr Kerry will not be visiting Israel on this trip, and analysts say that the Doha meeting could be an opportunity for GCC countries to push their demands at a time when the White House is seeking to isolate Israel and show that Iran’s neighbours are supportive. Sceptical Republican legislators debating the nuclear deal will also amplify Gulf concerns over the next six weeks.

With the Iran nuclear negotiations concluded, the White House appears more willing to push for a solution to the Syrian civil war, and Mr Kerry will discuss the topic with his GCC counterparts. He will also meet with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the Doha talks to discuss the issue. Some analysts say US officials may have concluded that Iran will be more amenable to facilitating a transition of power in Damascus now that they have secured concessions in the nuclear deal, though others think that the opposite may be more likely.

“I’m seeing no evidence – none whatsoever – that Iran is interested in moving Bashar Al Assad off the stage,” said Fred Hof, a former US state department official who worked on Syria policy under the Obama administration. “The Iranians consider him still to be essential to their ability to use at least a piece of Syria to support Hizbollah in Lebanon.”

tkhan@thenational.ae