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Senior US envoys head to Saudi Arabia, UAE amid concerns over Iran deal

Officials expected to discuss attempt to resurrect Iran nuclear deal, regional tensions and decision to go ahead with $23bn weapons sale to UAE
The team will be led by Brett McGurk, the White House National Security Council's Middle East policy coordinator
The team will be led by Brett McGurk, White House National Security Council's Middle East policy coordinator (AFP)

A team of US envoys is travelling to the Middle East this week for talks with key allies – including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – to address concerns about President Joe Biden’s bid to re-join the Iran nuclear deal as negotiations progress in Vienna.

"A senior interagency delegation will be traveling over the coming week to discuss a number of important matters related to US national security and ongoing efforts toward a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East region," a senior official said on Wednesday, as quoted by Reuters.

The team will be led by Brett McGurk, White House National Security Council's Middle East policy coordinator, and State Department counselor Derek Chollett, a source told the news agency.

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While the final itinerary was unclear, there were tentative plans for the team to visit Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. Bloomberg News was the first to report the news of the trip.

A regional diplomatic source in Washington told The National that the delegation would visit Saudi Arabia and the UAE to discuss Biden's bid to re-join the Iran nuclear deal.

The National reported that the State Department's acting assistant secretary for Near East affairs, Joey Hood, and the head of the Middle East desk at the Pentagon, Dana Stroul, will also be part of the delegation.

The officials are also expected to discuss the administration's decision to go ahead with the sale to the UAE of $23bn in military hardware including 50 F-35 fighters and 18 MQ-9 Reaper armed drones.

"We can confirm that the administration intends to move forward with these proposed defence sales to the UAE, even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials to ensure we have developed mutual understandings with respect to Emirati obligations before, during and after delivery," a US official confirmed to The National.

Middle East Eye reached out to the State Department for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Some US legislators have criticised the UAE for its involvement in the war in Yemen, a conflict considered one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with several bills in both chambers of Congress attempting to bar US arms sales to the Emirates as well as Saudi Arabia.

Iran nuclear deal talks

The delegation is heading to the region as the third round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna takes place.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by the US, Iran and world powers in 2015 lifted sanctions against Tehran after it scaled back its nuclear programme.

In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran. Iran initially continued to abide by the deal but has reduced some of its commitments since 2019.

Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia have been having rounds of meetings in Vienna aimed at agreeing on steps that would be needed to return to compliance under the agreement.

Prior to flying to Vienna this week, US special envoy on Iran Robert Malley on Tuesday discussed the current status of the nuclear negotiations with GCC allies.

Some US allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been concerned about Biden's attempt to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, fearing it would allow Tehran to acquire atomic weapons, although Tehran denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons.

A Saudi official said earlier this month that Riyadh believes any revival of the nuclear accord should be a starting point for further discussions bringing in regional states aimed at expanding the deal's provisions.