Gulf moves meant to curb Iran, Gates says

The Associated Press
Posted : Monday Jan 15, 2007 9:39:36 EST

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Stepped-up U.S. military activity in the Persian Gulf is to counter “very negative” behavior by Iran and undercut its belief that American forces are overcommitted in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday.

Gates said the time is not right for diplomatic talks with Iran, but left open that possibility for the future.

After meeting with senior officials at NATO headquarters, Gates was asked at a press conference what was behind the Bush administration’s decision to deploy a Patriot missile battalion and a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf region — moves announced in connection with a further buildup of ground troops in Iraq.

He noted that the U.S. has taken a leading role in Gulf security for many decades.

“We are simply reaffirming that statement of the importance of the Gulf region to the United States and our determination to be an ongoing strong presence in that area for a long time into the future,” he said.

Gates, who as recently as 2004 publicly called for diplomatic engagement with Iran, said the situation has changed. In 2004, Iran was concerned by the presence of U.S. forces on its eastern and western borders, in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, the Iranian government has come to see it differently, he said.

“The Iranians clearly believe that we are tied down in Iraq, that they have the initiative, that they are in position to press us in many ways,” he said. “They are doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point.”

He added, “And so the Iranians are acting in a very negative way in many respects. My view is that when the Iranians are prepared to play a constructive role in dealing with some of these problems, then there might be opportunities for engagement.”

Gates spent a few hours at NATO headquarters for his initial meetings with allied officials and American military officials. He arrived in the Belgian capital from London, where he met with British officials on Sunday