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Kerry seeks to ease Arab concerns of Iran deal

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought Thursday to ease Gulf Arab concerns about an emerging nuclear deal with Iran and vowed that any agreement reached would not reduce America's commitment to combating Tehran's destabilizing actions in the Middle East and beyond.

Speaking at a news conference in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Kerry said a nuclear agreement would not be part of a "grand bargain" with Iran and that the United States would continue to fully support its partners in the Gulf against Iranian interference.

"We are not seeking a grand bargain," Kerry said after meeting with the new Saudi monarch, King Salman, and the foreign ministers of the of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of which are Sunni-led states unnerved by Shiite Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and its increasing assertiveness throughout the region.

"Nothing will be different the day after this agreement, if we were to reach one, with respect to all the other issues in this region," Kerry said.

"Even as we engage in these discussions with Iran around its nuclear program," the secretary said, "we will not take our eyes off Iran's other destabilizing actions."

Of efforts to forge a framework agreement with Iran on its nuclear program by the end of March, Kerry said, "We have made progress, but there do remain serious gaps that need to be resolved."

"It may be that Iran cannot say yes to the type of deal that provides the assurances that the international community requires."

He alluded to the next round of talks beginning March 15, and said "we expect soon thereafter to know whether Iran will in fact be able to make the tough decision."

Saud said he appreciated Kerry's pledge that a nuclear deal "would not come at the expense of forgetting everything else that Iran does."

Kerry had underscored the extent of Arab unease with Iran, which is actively supporting fighters in Syria and Iraq and is backing Shiite rebels in Yemen, which toppled the country's government last month, apart from its nuclear ambitions.

Asked about Iran's involvement in fighting in Tikrit, Saud said, "What is happening in Tikrit is exactly what we are worried about. Iran is taking over the country." Kerry, however, said the Tikrit operation has been Iraqi-led and developed, although he did acknowledge there were Iranian elements involved.

Saud accused Iran of major malfeasance in the Arab world, saying that "it promotes terrorism, it occupies lands. These are not the features of a country that seeks to improve its relations with its neighbors."

Kerry arrived in Riyadh a day after wrapping up the latest round of Iran nuclear negotiations in Switzerland. He said the Gulf Cooperation Council countries would be invited to Washington in the coming months to discuss improving their security by bolstering their defense partnership with the United States.

On Yemen, Kerry said the U.S. supports the peace process led by the U.N. Yemen is embroiled in a political crisis that threatens to split the country. The U.N.-mediated talks are aimed at breaking the political stalemate between the rebels known as the Houthis and Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Hadi fled the capital of Sanaa after being released from house arrest last month and is now based in the southern city of Aden, from where he has been meeting foreign diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador. Hadi has called for the relocation of embassies to Aden, as several GCC members have done already.

The United States, which closed its embassy in Sanaa last month and evacuated its diplomatic staff, has no plans to relocate to Aden, although the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Matthew Tueller, met with Hadi in Aden on Monday. Until the crisis is resolved and the embassy reopened, Tueller and some of his staff will be based in an office at the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, the officials said.

On Syria, Kerry said there has to be a combination of "diplomacy and pressure" to get the political process moving and he reiterated the U.S. position that President Bashir Assad must go. At another point, he said "military pressure in particular may be necessary," and referred to the possibility of dispatching assistance to moderately-inclined rebels there.

"He has lost any semblance of legitimacy," Kerry said.

U.S. officials had said in advance of Kerry's talks here that the United States does not see a military solution to the conflict in Syria, but also does not think a political solution is possible while Assad remains in power.

"We must strengthen the capacity for a political solution," Kerry said.