MANAMA, Bahrain — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned yesterday that Iran is “overplaying their hand” in trying to exploit U.S. difficulties in the war in Iraq.
Following private meetings for the past two days with Saudi King Abdullah and Qatar Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Mr. Gates said he found deep concern about Iran’s ambitions in Iraq and the wider Middle East.
“I think the Iranians are overplaying their hand. They have raised real concerns in the region and beyond about their intentions,” said the Pentagon chief said in a briefing last night with reporters.
But Mr. Gates also said he found no appetite in the region for another conflict and said recent U.S. moves to bolster its military presence in the region and increase troops levels in Iraq were not a prelude to action against Tehran.
“Our difficulties have given them a tactical opportunity in the short term, but the United States remains a very powerful country,” Mr. Gates said.
The dispatch of a second naval carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf by President Bush last week was a clear sign “we are going to remain [in the region for a long time],” Mr. Gates said.
The defense chief, who finishes his regional tour with a stop in Iraq today, said he found support from U.S. allies for the strategy behind Mr. Bush’s increase in troops and aid to Iraq as a means to control the violence and aid the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
But he said many Arab regimes are still not convinced that Mr. Bush’s plan can achieve his goals.
“I would say they expressed hope” that the plan will work, he said.
Although he co-authored a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations study urging engagement with Tehran to solve the region’s security problems, Mr. Gates said yesterday Tehran’s assertive new stance and its unwillingness to halt its suspect nuclear programs meant direct engagement now would not be wise for the United States.
“Frankly, right at this moment, there’s really nothing the Iranians want from us,” he said. “In any negotiation, we would be the supplicant.”
“We need some leverage, it seems to me, before we engage with the Iranians,” Mr. Gates said. “And I think at some point engagement probably makes sense.”
Nearly four years ago, Iran offered to cut off aid and support for the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, and promised full transparency on its nuclear program, in a secret letter to the United States soon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported on Wednesday.
According to the BBC, the letter, which it obtained, was unsigned, but the State Department understood that it came with the approval of the highest Iranian authorities.
The Islamic republic also offered to use its influence to support stabilization in Iraq, and in return asked for a halt in U.S. hostility, an abolition of all sanctions, and the pursuit and repatriation of members of the Mujahedeen Khalq (People’s Mujahedeen).
The People’s Mujahedeen is an exiled Iranian opposition group that fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s army in the eight-year war with Iran, and is currently based in Iraq.
Initially, the State Department was receptive to the offer, according to Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s chief of staff, who spoke to the BBC.
“As soon as it got to the White House, and as soon as it got to the vice president’s office, the old mantra of ‘we don’t talk to evil’ … reasserted itself,” Mr. Wilkerson told the broadcast company.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.