Gates urges Gulf region to counter Iran

Defense Secretary Robert Gates planned to tell Gulf countries Saturday they must work together to help the U.S. counter Iranian threats, including Tehran's ballistic missiles and meddling in Iraq. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States still wants new sanctions.

Gates, ending a weeklong trip to the region, intended in his keynote speech at an international security conference in Manama to urge Gulf allies to cooperate more as part of a broader strategy for containing Iranian influence, according to U.S. officials traveling with Gates on Friday.

Gates' speech was to follow Rice's assertions Friday in Brussels, Belgium, that Washington would continue along a two-track strategy, pressing for new sanctions against Iran while holding talks to persuade Tehran to come clean about its nuclear program.

But Russia ignored her calls to punish Iran.

Despite continued strong support from NATO allies in the wake of a new U.S. intelligence report that concludes Iran actually stopped developing atomic weapons in 2003, Rice could not convince Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of the urgency of fresh sanctions.

Rice said her talks with Lavrov were "an extension of other conversations we have had," suggesting the two didn't see eye to eye.

White House officials maintained an optimistic tone. Based on contacts with Russia, China and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council since the release Monday of the new intelligence estimate on Iran, "we are still committed to Iran stopping its enrichment," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "And we will eventually get a third U.N. Security Council resolution."

Bush spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday and Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday.

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking in Kansas City to members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said, "In the case of Iran, we're dealing with a country that is still enriching uranium and remains a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and that is a cause of great concern to the United States."

Cheney said others in the international community, including Russia, share that concern.

At the Pentagon, senior military officers told reporters the U.S. intelligence revelation that it believes Iran scrapped its nuclear weapons design effort in 2003 has not triggered new instructions by the Bush administration to speed up or slow down any Iran crisis planning.

"There has been no course correction - slowdown, speedup - given to us inside the Joint Staff" for military crisis planning, said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Attending the Bahrain security conference with Gates were Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Adm. William J. Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East. Fallon spoke to reporters about Iran.

"Their behavior has really been a problem, and to the extent that it destabilizes the region, which it does, then it becomes a problem for us," Fallon said.

Defense officials have said Iran's delivery of weapons and other support into Iraq and Afghanistan and the detention of British sailors earlier this year are key activities that threaten security in the region.

And Gulf country leaders, Fallon said, have told him that their concern "is more the pressure that they feel from Iran as they want to dominate this area."

A senior defense official traveling with Gates said the secretary planned to tell the Bahrain conference that Gulf countries have shared commercial and security interests, and the more they cooperate the more the world will benefit. One key area would be shared efforts in an early warning system because of the ballistic missile threats from Iran.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues.

A U.S. Navy commander, meanwhile, said Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital commercial waterway at the tip of the Gulf, are the greatest concern for maritime security in the region.

Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said that while the likelihood of that happening is low, concerns about Iran consume the region - and his day.

"I wake up thinking about Iran, I go to bed thinking about Iran," Cosgriff told reporters.

He added, "I know of no threat that would cause them to want to close ... the Strait of Hormuz. To me it's coercive, it's intended to intimidate not only the regional nations - 'look at us, we can damage your prosperity' - but it's intended to intimidate the global market. I just don't think that's responsible behavior."

His comments came as Iranian officials decided at the last minute not to attend the Bahrain conference. ( AP )

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