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

( LatWp ) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the United States 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 in 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 Tuesday 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 that operate 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 world view 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,'' he said.

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