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. Gates ends Mideast tour with call for pressure on Iran
ABU DHABI, Aug 2 (AFP) Aug 02, 2007
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates ended a Middle East tour on Thursday with an appeal to key Arab states to join the United States in stepping up pressure on Iran to end its nuclear programme.

Gates said measures to enforce UN financial and trade sanctions were one avenue to squeeze Iran, but he also explored ideas for expanded military cooperation during three days of talks in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

"Iran is actively engaged right now in activities that are contrary to the interests of most of the countries, virtually all of the countries, that we just visited as well as the United States, as well as Iraq," he said.

"We just can't wait years for them to try to change their policies," he told reporters as he flew back to Washington from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

It was unclear how much headway Gates made on Iran.

Friction with Saudi Arabia over US policy in Iraq stole the headlines when Gates and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a joint visit to Jeddah on Wednesday.

Gates and Rice also tried to deal with uncertainties in the region over whether and under what conditions the United States will withdraw its forces from Iraq.

They earlier visited Egypt together. Gates then went to Kuwait and the UAE, while Rice headed for Jerusalem and Ramallah to lay the groundwork for a Middle East peace conference called by Washington for later this year.

The United States suffered another setback in Iraq on Wednesday with the withdrawal of the main Sunni Arab bloc from the US-backed government in Baghdad.

"What this was about was beginning a dialogue with our friends and partners in the region about both Iraq and Iran on the one hand, and long-term interests and security on the other," Gates said.

"And partly as a result of the debates in Washington over the last several months, to reassure them that the United States is going to be a major power and major presence in this region for a long time to come," he said.

Asked the reaction of the leaders he met, Gates said: "Without being country specific, in terms of concern with Iran, there was no difference of opinion.

"The more countries in the world that cooperate in the UN sanctions, and in bringing pressures to bear on this government, that its policies are antithetical to the interests of all of its neighbours, the better off we'll be," he said.

"That was basically our message... We'll need to work together," he said. "There is not really room for bystanders here."

A senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Gates's counterparts appeared intrigued by some of his ideas for expanding military cooperation.

The Saudis indicated they were prepared to go forward with a 20 billion dollar US arms package designed to counter what Washington sees as a growing threat from Iran, officials said.

Specifics of the Saudi package have not been disclosed, but the categories of weapons include missile defence and early warning systems, air defence and air power.

Delivery of the weapons would be spread out over 10 years.

Gates also sounded out his counterparts about US ideas for expanded cooperation in areas such as missile defence, maritime security and crisis management, officials said.

He also suggested holding more multilateral exercises in the Gulf, they said, although nothing like a formal military alliance was contemplated.

The senior US defence official said that while the Gulf Arab monarchies were concerned about Iran's nuclear programme, none saw the threat as immediate.

"We have a given period of time," the official said, adding that the Iranians "are working away at it."

Other components of a multi-billion-dollar arms bonanza for Washington's allies in the region discussed during the tour include pacts worth 13 billion dollars for Egypt, 30 billion dollars for Israel and reportedly at least 20 billion dollars for Gulf states other than Saudi Arabia.

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