U.S. Is Open to a Deeper Iran Dialogue, Gates Says

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that the U.S. government is open to higher-level exchanges with Iran, and he called talks this month in Baghdad that included Iranian, Syrian and U.S. officials "a good start."

In his first domestic public speech since taking office in December, Gates laid out a pragmatic approach to foreign policy -- one that emphasizes using diplomacy to overcome disagreements with Turkey, Iran and other nations regarding Iraq.

Gates, who had advocated dialogue with Iran before becoming defense secretary, said "the regional talks recently held in Baghdad were a good start toward improved cooperation, and our government is open to higher-level exchanges."

But Gates also warned of the need for realism in dealing with Tehran.

"We should have no illusions about the nature of this regime -- or about their designs for their nuclear program, their intentions for Iraq, or their ambitions in the Gulf region," he said in remarks before the American-Turkish Council in Washington.

Gates stressed that all of Iraq's neighbors "will need to play a constructive role going forward, even if they haven't done so in the past -- especially in encouraging political reconciliation and a reduction in violence within Iraq," adding: "This is certainly the case with Syria and Iran, who have not been helpful."

Gates has repeatedly criticized Iranian involvement in providing weapons to fighters in Iraq, including roadside "explosively formed projectiles" -- considered one of the most lethal munitions used against U.S. troops.

Drawing on a Cold War analogy, Gates recalled how he and then-national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski met with Iranian leaders in November 1979 with an offer of diplomatic recognition -- only to be met with Iranian demands that they hand over the shah. Three days later, he said, 66 Americans were seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

"The American search for elusive Iranian 'moderates' is a recurring -- and mostly fruitless -- theme since the revolution in 1979," he said.

Today, frictions are again rising over Iran's detention last Friday of 15 British navy sailors.

The U.S. Navy yesterday launched a large-scale exercise in the Persian Gulf involving two aircraft carriers, the USS John C. Stennis and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. The message of the exercise "extends beyond the sailors and to the overall situation regarding Iranian intervention in Iraq and any tendency to act out over U.N. sanctions," said a U.S. military expert who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

In his speech, Gates underscored that "stability in the Gulf region is a vital American interest."

On Turkey, Gates said the United States needs to do more to counter attacks on Turkish civilians by a Kurdish militia known as the PKK, which operates across the border in Iraq. "We recognize that every Turkish citizen killed by the PKK is a setback for success in Iraq and a setback in our relationship with Turkey," he said.

Gates also outlined a practical worldview that draws on various U.S. foreign policy traditions -- both the realism of Republicans such as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who introduced Gates at the event, as well as approaches focused on values such as freedom.

"American foreign policy must be a blend of all these approaches, with different emphases in different places and at different times," Gates said. "What matters are results."

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