Gates sees Iran as ‘negative’

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BRUSSELS — Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates yesterday said Iran is “doing nothing to be constructive” in Iraq, insisting it was up to Tehran to change its policies in Iraq and across the region before it can hope for better ties with the United States.

But Mr. Gates, meeting briefly with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer here before making his first trip as Pentagon chief to Afghanistan, also said recent moves by President Bush to bulk up U.S. forces and military assets in the Persian Gulf should not be considered a prelude to possible action against Iran.

Part of the president’s new strategy for Iraq outlined last week included the deployment of additional Patriot anti-missile systems to U.S. allies in the region.

The moves are meant to underscore the U.S. commitment to remain engaged throughout the Middle East, regardless of the state of progress in Iraq.

“I think what we are trying to communicate to all the countries of the Gulf area … is that the stability of the Gulf is a long-term strategic interest of the United States,” Mr. Gates said.

Iran, meanwhile, asked Saudi Arabia to help ease tensions between the Islamic republic and the United States in a letter delivered by Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, to the Saudi king, Reuters news agency reported yesterday.

The letter from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted Saudi leaders to relay a goodwill message to Washington — to “help bring opinions together” between the two countries.

Mr. Gates co-authored a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations study advocating a possible rapprochement with Iran, based on Tehran’s growing concerns after U.S. military successes in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the defense secretary, who took office just last month, said Iran’s attitudes and actions have changed dramatically as the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq has bogged down.

“Iran is doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point,” Mr. Gates said. “It is acting in a very negative way, in my opinion.” Only when there is a change of policy in Tehran “will there be room for engagement” with the United States, he said. “The initiative needs to rest with the Iranians.”

U.S. military officials say Iran has close ties to Shi’ite Iraqi militia and has supplied explosives and logistical support for attacks on Americans.

On a separate issue, Mr. Gates said senior British military officials had confirmed to him during a Sunday night visit that they planned to begin reducing Britain’s 7,000-troop deployment in southern Iraq this year, even as the United States plans to increase its troop deployment by more than 21,000 to combat a spike in violence in Baghdad and Anbar province.

After the United States, Britain is the largest contributor to the multinational force in Iraq and has had primary security responsibility in the Shi’ite southern heartland since 2003.

Mr. Gates and Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said much of their talk centered on bolstering the NATO mission in Afghanistan, which has faced resurgent attacks from Islamist fundamentalist forces.

The defense secretary arrived in Afghanistan last night and is slated to meet President Hamid Karzai and senior U.S. and NATO military commanders today.

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