Gates Assures Mideast Allies on U.S. Overtures to Iran

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, May 5 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to reassure U.S. allies in the Middle East on Tuesday that their relationships with the United States would not be damaged by the Obama administration's efforts to open a dialogue with Iran.

In Egypt, Gates played down the likelihood of a major breakthrough, or "grand bargain," that would lead to dramatic changes in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, such as the re-establishment of diplomatic ties.

"I believe that kind of prospect is very remote," he told reporters in Cairo on Tuesday after meeting with President Hosni Mubarak. "We'll just have to see how the Iranians respond to the offer from the president. Frankly, some of the first things that have happened as a result of the extension of that open hand have not been encouraging."

President Obama has advocated talking to the Iranian leadership as part of a broader effort to persuade Tehran to drop its nuclear weapons ambitions and cease supporting groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. U.S. allies in the Middle East have long seen Iran as a primary threat to their security. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Gates assured leaders that the United States would be "open and transparent" in its contacts with Iran and said that any talks with the Iranian regime would progress slowly, if they advanced at all.

"To tell you the truth, I have been around long enough to see these efforts attempted before with no result," he said. "The question is whether circumstances in Iran have changed in such a way that with the administration offering an opportunity for contact that the Iranians are willing to take advantage of that opportunity."

Gates arrived in Saudi Arabia as the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan traveled to Washington for talks this week on how to handle the growing threat posed by the Taliban in both countries. Last month, Taliban insurgents moved to within 60 miles of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The Taliban have also have gained strength in Afghanistan of late, prompting Obama to send 20,000 additional American troops to the country and revamp the U.S. strategy.

Gates suggested that the Saudis might be able to provide some help in the battle against the Taliban, though he did not specify what measures the Saudis might take. The Saudis' close ties to the region go back to a joint campaign by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to arm Afghan guerrilla groups fighting to push the Soviet army out of Afghanistan. Some of those guerrilla fighters are now leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Saudi government has been linked to efforts to help the Afghan government reconcile with some of the more moderate elements of the Taliban movement.

"Saudi Arabia clearly has a lot of influence throughout the entire region and a long-standing and close relationship with Pakistan," Gates told reporters.

Senior U.S. officials, however, have said that as long as Taliban leaders in Afghanistan are convinced that they were operating from a position of strength, talks were unlikely to produce results.

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