U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers in Paris Friday to discuss regional issues, including concerns over a final nuclear deal with Iran and the conflict in Yemen.
The talks are aimed at laying the groundwork a White House summit with Gulf leaders next week.
A focal point of Friday’s talks will be Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
Concern over Iran
Some Gulf nations have expressed concern that a possible Iran nuclear deal could destabilize the region. They have also raised concerns about Iran’s influence in countries such as Yemen, where Tehran is believed to be providing support to Shi’ite Houthi rebels.
Thursday, Kerry said “the United States is deeply concerned about Iran’s actions in the region.”
He commented from Riyadh in a joint news conference with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
Kerry said a priority for the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Paris was to “concentrate our minds on those steps necessary to provide greater stability and security.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council is composed of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
White House summit
The Gulf leaders will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday and at the Camp David presidential retreat on Thursday. The White House says the summit is an opportunity for U.S. and Gulf leaders to enhance their partnership and deepen security cooperation.
Kerry is wrapping up a weeklong trip that included stops in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. While in Paris, he met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and participated in World War II Victory Day commemorations.
Cease-fire in Yemen
In Saudi Arabia, Kerry and Jubeir announced plans to pursue a five-day humanitarian pause in Yemen, where fighting by Houthi rebels has forced thousands of people from the country. They said the cease-fire would be renewable, depending on the situation on the ground.
Al-Jubeir said there had been no initial contact with the Houthis, who are believed to receive support from Iran, on whether they would support a cease-fire.
Kerry added, “We strongly urge the Houthis and those who back them — whom we suggest use all their influence — not to miss this major opportunity to address the needs of the Yemeni people and find a peaceful way forward in Yemen."
Kerry said the humanitarian pause would mean "no bombing, no shooting" and no repositioning of troops.
Al-Jubeir urged the Houthi rebels to halt attacks as well, saying: "There will be a cease-fire everywhere or a cease-fire nowhere." He added that he hoped the Houthis would care enough about the Yemeni people to support the plan.
The Saudi foreign minister said more details would be announced within the coming days about the proposed pause.
Earlier this week, Yemen’s U.N ambassador sent a letter to the Security Council, urging the international community to “quickly intervene” with ground forces in Yemen.
Asked about the request, Kerry said neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia had been talking about sending in ground troops.
On Wednesday, Kerry said the U.S. would provide another $68 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen. The money will be used to provide food, water, shelter, medical care and other aid.
The State Department said the money would help humanitarian organizations, which have been hampered by fuel shortages in the country, meet the needs of nearly 16 million people in Yemen affected by the country’s crisis, including about 300,000 who have been internally displaced.
Saudi Arabia will provide $274 million in new assistance, al-Jubeir said Thursday.
The United Nations said about 650 civilians have been killed in Yemen’s unrest.
Despite the airstrikes, the Houthis and forces loyal to a former President Ali Abdullah Saleh have remained entrenched in areas they seized earlier this year and on Wednesday took an important district in Aden.
Also Thursday, Kerry met separately with Saudi King Salman and Yemen’s exiled President Abdu Rabb Mansour Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia for his own safety.
Kerry and the Yemeni leader met at the ornate Al-Nasarieh Guest Palace.
After exchanging greetings, Hadi said, “Hopefully, we will see you in Sana’a soon.”
“Aaah,” said Kerry, “there is some work to do.”
Hadi has denounced what he called a “coup” by Houthi rebels, who occupied Sana’a last year and later placed him under house arrest. In February, Hadi fled to the southern port of Aden and then to Saudi Arabia.
Civilian deaths alleged
The cease-fire proposal comes as the Yemeni government and human rights groups condemn what they called dozens of civilian deaths at the hands of Houthi rebels.
Yemen's mission to the United Nations released a statement Wednesday that referred to the "latest barbaric events in Aden."
Yemen accused the Houthi militia of attacking civilians, including women and children, in the Tawahi neighborhood of Aden, killing more than 50 people who were trying to flee violence. They also accused the rebels and forces loyal to former leader Saleh of preventing medical teams from aiding the injured and of killing humanitarian workers.
Johannes Van Der Klaauw, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, also said in a statement: "I am gravely concerned by reports coming out of Yemen yesterday [Wednesday] with accounts of scores of people, many of them civilians and including women and children, being killed and injured in hostilities.
"Civilians were reportedly targeted while they were trying to flee to safer areas, having been trapped in Aden [for six weeks] with limited or no access to water, food and health care for weeks," his statement continued. "Violence towards civilians and aid workers, and attacks on hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, must stop immediately."
Human Rights Watch reported Thursday that pro-Houthi forces killed two civilians and illegally detained a group of aid workers last month in Aden.
"The difficulty of investigating the fighting in Yemen may mean abuses like these in Aden are just the tip of the iceberg," Joe Stark, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement. "The onus is on all factions and on the Saudi-led coalition to take steps to abide by the laws of war."
HRW urged the Houthi rebels to avoid harming civilians and to investigate and punish any fighters responsible for abuses.