Gates ends tour, calls for pressure on Iran

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates urged US partners in the Middle East on Thursday to put pressure on Iran to end its nuclear programme, warning there’s “not really room for bystanders here”.Gates made the comments to reporters while flying back to Washington at the end of a three-day trip to sound out rulers of key Gulf and Arab states on US ideas for confronting the looming nuclear challenge from Iran.

“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 said.

Besides the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Gates visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He joined US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the first two stops, an unusual pairing intended to show the US administration was united behind the policy, Agence France Pressse said.

He ended the trip with talks over lunch in Abu Dhabi with the emirate’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed Ben Zayed Al Nahayan.

“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,” Gates said.

“That was basically our message. So it’s really not so much containment, as we’ll need to work together,” he said. “There is not really room for bystanders here.” 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 UAE news agency WAM said Gates and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince “exchanged views about a number of important matters that jointly concern them regarding fostering security and stability in the region.”

A key part of Gates’s and Rice’s tour was to discuss a multibillion-dollar military aid bonanza for Washington’s allies in the Gulf amid US accusations that Shiite Iran is trying to destabilise the region.

The pacts are worth $20 billion for Saudi Arabia, $13 billion for Egypt, $30 billion  for Israel and reportedly at least $20 billion  for the other Gulf states.

On the flight back home, Gates told reporters US officials underestimated how difficult it would be for the Iraqi government to pass political reforms, adding that the “depth of mistrust” among the factions is greater than anticipated.

Gates said he is more optimistic about improvements in security in the wartorn nation than he is about getting legislation passed by the bitterly divided government.

“In some ways we probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation,” Gates said.

“The kinds of legislation they’re talking about will establish the framework of Iraq for the future so it’s almost like our constitutional convention… And the difficulty in coming to grips with those, we may all have underestimated six or eight months ago.” Gates’ comments came a day after six Sunni Cabinet ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front quit in protest over what they said was Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s failure to respond to a set of demands.

Just two Sunnis remain in the 40-member Cabinet, and Maliki Thursday was working to get the six to reconsider.

Washington ordered a buildup of US forces in Iraq — adding about 30,000 troops for a total of nearly 160,000 — to quell the violence so the government could stabilise and take hold. That would then allow the US to begin the much-demanded withdrawal of troops.

On Thursday Gates said the political developments are “somewhat discouraging at the national level”, but he hopes it can be patched back together.

Meanwhile, he said security is improving.

“I am optimistic on the security side because of what I see in Al Anbar, and what we’re seeing in some of the other provinces where we’re getting some cooperation,” he said.”

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