Kerry’s fence-mending tour of the Middle East

The secretary of state has been working tirelessly to restore trust in the US among its Arab allies, but his chances for success are murky at best

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) shakes hands with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri following a news conference after meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo August 2, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) shakes hands with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri following a news conference after meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo August 2, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Seemingly indefatigable, Secretary of State John Kerry was on the move again. He arrived in the Middle East to try to pacify America’s Arab allies and convince them that the Vienna agreement will prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons for years to come. Simultaneously, he pledged American support in the fight against terrorism.
During his visits to Cairo and Qatar, he did his best to smooth over the resentment and anger of his hosts over the secret negotiations with Tehran that Washington led in the years 2013- 2015. Abandoning its traditional partners in the region, America was busy bolstering their sworn enemy, Shi’ite Iran, which is openly trying to destroy them to set up an extremist Shi’ite regime on their ruins.
The extent of Washington’s duplicity was made clear in 2013, when details of the secret talks under way in Oman were revealed. Saudi Arabia, for nearly a century a staunch ally of America, felt the betrayal deeply. So did Israel, threatened on a daily basis with annihilation by the ayatollahs.
Though Egypt is no longer at the forefront of the coalition of pragmatic countries against Iranian encroachments, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has repeatedly declared that the safety of the Gulf states is essential to the safety of his country.
It did not help that after the fall of president Mohamed Morsi, the White House refused to accept the ouster of what it called “a democratically elected president” and tightened its ties with Turkey and Qatar, the leading supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was doing its utmost to topple Sisi and to undermine Egypt’s stability. Indeed, during last year’s Operation Protective Edge, Washington favored Qatari-Turkish attempts at mediation over those of Egypt, which were acceptable to Israel.
To show its displeasure, America suspended in 2013 most of its military assistance to Cairo, including the joint exercises carried out since the peace agreement with Israel. This at a time the country’s economy was in disarray and jihadist terrorist organization Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was intensifying its attack in the Sinai Peninsula as well as in the heart of Egypt.
Vainly did the Egyptian president call on his American counterpart for help. Obama was intent on pointing out human rights violations. Yet Sisi, stubbornly following in Sadat’s footsteps, had resolutely chosen to be in the Western camp.
Someone in Washington had apparently forgotten that Egypt is the only Arab state that has existed since the dawn of time within its present borders; that with some 90 million inhabitants, it is the most populous Arab country; that it is of paramount geostrategic importance for America, because, among other things, it needs the Suez Canal for its navy and Egyptian airspace for its air force. Indeed, someone had also conveniently forgotten that during the second Gulf War, Turkey closed its airspace while Egypt let coalition planes go through.
Left with no other choice, Sisi turned to Russia and concluded an important arms deal as well as several economic agreements with Moscow.
He is considering economic cooperation with China. He bought French Rafale and Cobra warplanes under advantageous conditions. This of course is not enough. Egypt still desperately needs American economic and military support.
Altogether, Obama has let a chasm open between America and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which feel threatened by Tehran’s unending attempts at subversion. He has angered the Sunni world, which comprises 85 percent of all Muslims, by appearing to favor Shi’ite Iran, which is intent on dominating them.
It is true that the Sunnis are deeply divided: the Muslim Brothers are fighting against Egypt; the self-proclaimed Islamic State is fighting in Iraq and Syria against Sunnis and Shi’ites while fighting against Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, and one could go on. Nevertheless, Sunni countries are united in rejecting the Vienna agreement, which permits Iran to enrich uranium and keep on developing its long-range missile program.
Faced with the danger of a nuclear Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states are all mulling joining the race for nuclear weapons. This would be a devastating blow to one of the most volatile and dangerous regions of the world, with the hair-raising possibility of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of one of the extremist Islamic organizations at work there.
Then there is the new status of Iran, now welcomed into the nations of the world eager to do business with a country that is determined to implement the program set down by Ayatollah Khomeini: to take over the whole Middle East.
Will Kerry’s fence-mending tour have the desired effect? Can he restore trust and confidence in his country? Probably not, as far as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are concerned. Regarding Egypt, maybe.
In Cairo he told Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry that the strategic dialogue between the two countries would be resumed. Military assistance was partly reinstated in March. Last week Washington handed over eight F-16 fighter planes, under an earlier agreement.
Kerry was at pains to praise the Egyptian president for his efforts to develop the economy and to promise increased cooperation in a variety of fields as well as support in the fight against Islamic terrorism. According to sources in the Egyptian capital, he admitted that he had evidence that the Muslim Brothers engaged in terrorist activities. If true, that was music to Egyptian ears.
On August 3 in Qatar, his next stop, he met with the foreign ministers of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, he met also with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov together with the Saudi foreign minister.
He attempted to tell them that the world would be a better place because Iran will not have the bomb. He repeated Iran’s new mantra – conflicts in the Middle East can be resolved through diplomacy, not war – in other words, acknowledging Iran’s influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Not that anyone believed him.
They made polite noises, accepted his offers of help in their fight against Iran-fueled terrorism, and started weighing their options.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.