Kerry assures Middle East allies Iran deal makes them 'safer'

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry before a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo on Aug 2, 2015.
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry before a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo on Aug 2, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to assure Middle East allies that the Iran nuclear deal would make them safer, as he began a regional tour in the Egyptian capital on Sunday.

Mr Kerry met his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry to patch up troubled relations between the two countries with a pledge of support.

He was to later meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before flying to Qatar to meet his Gulf Arab counterparts.

Egypt, and other countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, are suspicious of Iran, which they view as bent on destabilising their countries.

"There can be absolutely no question that if the Vienna plan is fully implemented, it will make Egypt and all the countries of this region safer than they otherwise would be or were," Mr Kerry told a joint Cairo press conference with Mr Shoukry.

"The United States and Egypt recognise that Iran is engaged in destabilising activities in the region - and that is why it is so important to ensure that Iran's nuclear programme remains wholly peaceful," he said.

"If Iran is destabilising, it is far, far better to have an Iran that doesn't have a nuclear weapon than one that does."

Ties between the US and Egypt had frayed after then army chief Sisi overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

More than 1,000 of Morsi's supporters were killed in a sweeping crackdown on protests, and militants have since killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen.

Most of the attacks have been conducted by the Egyptian affiliate of the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, which a US-led coalition is battling.

Mr Kerry spoke of the need for a "balance" between fighting militants and respecting human rights in Egypt.

The "US and Egypt are moving back to a stronger base of relationship," he said at the press conference.

"There has been a little bit of tensions here and there over certain issues. The US has expressed concerns about some of the challenges of human rights protection."

Washington had frozen arms deliveries to Cairo following the crackdown on Morsi's supporters, but resumed aid in March and delivered a batch of F-16 jets to Egypt last week.

"We have significantly increased military cooperation as seen from the delivery of the F-16s, other equipment and goods which are very essential in the fight against terrorism," Mr Kerry said.

- 'Serious' ISIS threat -

Earlier, at the televised start of the meeting with Mr Shoukry, Mr Kerry said his country wanted to support Cairo economically and politically.

"The American people are committed to the security and economic wellbeing of the Egyptian people," he said.

The United States has again grown supportive of Egypt, long a key Middle East ally, as Sisi battles the ISIS insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.

"One of the key decision points of why we decided to move forward was our estimate that the Egyptians were facing a very serious threat from ISIL-affiliated organisations in the Sinai and that we needed to help them," a State Department official said ahead of Mr Kerry's visit, using another acronym for ISIS.

However Washington has remained critical of Egypt's human rights record.

Mr Kerry's trip, which ends on Aug 8, will not include Israel, one of Washington's closest allies, which has been a fierce critic of the July 14 nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran.

In Doha, Mr Kerry will meet his counterparts from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states He will seek to allay their fears about Shi'ite Iran, following the nuclear deal signed in Vienna.

"This is an opportunity, really, for the secretary to do a deep dive with the GCC foreign ministers to try to respond to any remaining questions that they might have and hopefully to satisfy them and ensure that they're supporting our effort going forward," the State Department official said.

Many Gulf Arab states have said they are concerned about Iran's ambitions in the region following the pact with the US and five other world powers - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.