Tuesday, May 5, 2009

CAIRO — The top U.S. defense official said Monday that the Obama administration would be “pretty tough-minded” if Iran responds to its overtures with a “closed fist.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is on a delicate mission to soothe Mideast allies’ concerns about American efforts to open diplomatic relations with Tehran.

Mr. Gates arrived in Cairo on the first leg of a Mideast tour that will include Saudi Arabia. He said part of his mission this week will be to assure the Saudis, and other Mideast allies, that any U.S. gesture toward Tehran will be for the purpose of improving security throughout the region.

Building diplomacy with Iran “will not be at the expense of our long-term relationships with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states that have been our partners and friends for decades,” Mr. Gates told reporters aboard a military jet headed to Egypt.

A second U.S. official said the U.S. is only “at first base” with Tehran and that diplomatic deals aimed at scaling back tensions over Iran’s nuclear program were still premature. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue more candidly.

Another crucial issue for Mr. Gates on this trip will be negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo early Tuesday. Mr. Gates has credited Egypt for working as an intermediary between the two sides.

On the U.S. feelers to Iran, Mr. Gates acknowledged that there are likely “concerns in the region that may draw on an exaggerated sense of what’s possible. And I just think it’s important to reassure our friends and allies in the region that while we’re willing to reach out to the Iranians, as the president said, with an open hand, I think everybody in the administration, from the president on down, is pretty realistic and will be pretty tough-minded if we still encounter a closed fist.”

Mr. Gates flies to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on Tuesday.

He also noted concerns throughout the Mideast about Iran’s influence in Baghdad, and said they could be staved off if more Arab nations opened embassies or otherwise became more involved in Iraq.

Mr. Gates praised Egypt, for example, for having “taken some serious steps forward to re-engage.”

Critics of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accuse him of forging ties with fellow Shi’ites who are allied with Iran. The issue has been a flash point for Iraq’s Sunnis, who, under Saddam Hussein, fought Iran decades ago.

Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi urged Arab countries to increase their involvement in Iraq by reopening embassies, making official visits and increasing trade ties.

“Arab countries must read the new strategic scene in Iraq. They have to open up and extend bridges with Iraq,” Mr. al-Hashemi told reporters following talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman.

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