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US Defense Secretary Gates: Iranians ‘Overplaying Their Hand’ January 18, 2007

Posted by notapundit in Military News, US News.
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MANAMA, Bahrain (AP)–The Iranians are “overplaying their hand” on the world stage in a belief that setbacks in Iraq have weakened the U.S., Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

Gates said he had told by U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar that the Iranians “believe they have the United States at some disadvantage because of the situation in Iraq.”

However, the Iranians are going too far, he said he told the allies, and “one of the consequences of that is that they have raised real concerns on the part of a number of countries in the region and beyond about their intentions.”

Many of the Gulf nations are worried about a rising Iranian influence – a concern made more acute by the prospect for a further slide toward civil war in Iraq and its uncertain consequences for the U.S.

With regard to U.S. failure thus far to achieve stability in Iraq, Gates said, “I think that our difficulties have given them (the Iranians) a tactical opportunity in the short term, but the United States is a very powerful country.”

On his second overseas trip since replacing Donald H. Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief, Gates visited the headquarters of Central Command’s naval staff, which is located in Bahrain with the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Then he flew to Qatar for a meeting with that tiny Gulf state’s top leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Afterward, he visited an air base from which Central Command’s air staff plans, runs and monitors air operations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Under ground rules imposed by U.S. officials, reporters traveling with Gates were prohibited from identifying the base or the country in which it is located.

Gates also met with Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, whose forward headquarters is in Qatar. Abizaid is due to retire in March; Adm. William Fallon has been nominated to replace him.

Together, Gates’ visits to the naval and air components of Central Command provided an overview of how those elements of U.S. operations are conducted in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. He was taken inside a high-tech air operations center at the base where officers watching large screens can track U.S. aircraft in the region in real time and monitor live video feeds from U.S. surveillance aircraft.

Asked about the prospects for military conflict with Iran, whose nuclear program is seen by the Bush administration as a growing threat to U.S. interests, Gates said, “There are many courses of action available that do not involve an open conflict with Iran – there’s no need for that.”

Gates said that although he had publicly advocated negotiating with Iran as recently as 2004, he now advises against that.

“Right at this moment, there’s really nothing the Iranians want from us,” he said. “And so, in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant,” asking Iran to stop doing such things as enriching uranium for its nuclear program.

“We need some leverage, it seems to me, before we engage with the Iranians,” Gates added. “And I think at some point engagement probably makes sense.”

Until the Iranians are persuaded that, despite being bogged down in Iraq, “the United States is in fact a formidable adversary, there’s not much advantage for us in engaging with them,” he said.

That assessment may explain, at least in part, the decision announced last week to send a second U.S. aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf region, along with a Patriot missile battalion capable of shooting down shorter-range ballistic missiles of the type Iran has in its arsenal.

In Bahrain, a British Royal Navy officer who is the No. 2 commander for coalition naval forces in the Central Command area of responsibility told reporters that the exact role and missions of the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis, which is due to arrive in the Gulf area next month, have not yet been worked out.

British Commodore Keith Winstanley said the Stennis deployment should not be seen entirely as a move aimed at Iran, but he added, “I’m sure there’s a message there for Iran.”

He said Iranian naval operations have not changed in any significant way since Bush announced the extra carrier deployment, and Winstanley said at-sea contacts with the Iranian navy have been “extremely cordial.”

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