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US Warns Iran To Back Off In Persian Gulf January 23, 2007

Posted by notapundit in Military News, US News, World News.
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DUBAI (AP)–A second U.S. aircraft carrier strike group now steaming toward the Middle East is Washington’s way of warning Iran to back down in its attempts to dominate the region, a top U.S. diplomat said here Tuesday.

Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, ruled out direct U.S. negotiations with Iran and said a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran was “not possible” until Iran halts its enrichment of uranium.

“The Middle East isn’t a region to be dominated by Iran. The Gulf isn’t a body of water to be controlled by Iran. That’s why we’ve seen the U.S. station two carrier battle groups in the region,” Burns said in an address to the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, an influential think-tank.

“Iran is going to have to understand that the U.S. will protect its interests if Iran seeks to confront us,” Burns continued. “We will defend our interests if we are challenged. That might be a message Iran must understand.”

The U.S. aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and several accompanying ships are heading toward the Gulf to join an aircraft carrier group already in the region, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Stennis is expected to arrive in late February.

The Stennis’s arrival in the Middle East will mark the first time since the U.S.-led Iraq invasion in 2003 that the U.S. has had two carrier battle groups in the region.

The U.S. Navy said Tuesday that the minesweeper USS Gladiator has also arrived in the Persian Gulf, one of six such ships – four from the U.S., two from the U.K. – now plying the Gulf for anti-ship mines. U.S. officials have long said Iran would be expected to block busy Gulf shipping lanes if there is a conflict.

In addition, Burns also said Tuesday that the U.S. is to unveil a large aid package for Lebanon during an international conference in Paris Wednesday. Washington’s funds are aimed at bolstering the embattled pro-U.S. government of Lebanese President Fouad Saniora, now besieged by protesters seeking his ouster.

“The U.S. will make a substantial contribution, a long-term financial commitment to help Lebanon rebuild itself and its economy,” he said. “They suffered through a vicious war this summer.”

He said specifics of the package would be revealed in Paris.

Lebanon saw more than a thousand killed and huge damage to its infrastructure and economy during a month-long Israeli offensive that had Washington’s backing.

Burns, a former State Department spokesman, said he was touring the U.S.’s Gulf allies to follow up on four previous visits by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has sought the region’s support for U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and contain Iran.

But the audience of Dubai-based diplomats and analysts was dismayed by Burns’ tough talk on Iran. Attendees complained that U.S. wars in the Middle East were already threatening the region’s stability and asked him to sort out Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict before the country turned its attention to Iran.

“What we are not interested in is another war in the region,” Mohammed al-Naqbi, who heads the Gulf Negotiations Center, told Burns. “Iraq is your problem, not the problem of the Arabs. You destroyed a country that had institutions. You handed that country to Iran. Now you are crying to Europe and the Arabs to help you out of this mess.”

Burns’ speech appeared to respond to similar comments by Iranian officials in Dubai and Bahrain last month. In December, Iran’s top national security adviser, Ali Larijani, appealed to Gulf Arabs to shut down U.S. bases on their soil and instead join Iran in a regional security alliance.

Burns acknowledged that Washington’s Mideast Gulf problems would continue to dominate the administration of President George Bush’s agenda. He pointed to Iran as one of four priorities, along with Iraq, Israel and Lebanon.

“In the final two years of the Bush presidency it will be the Middle East where we will focus the majority of our attention,” Burns said.

Dubai, which lies about 100 miles across the Gulf from Iran, is an ideal place to deal with Tehran, he said. The State Department last summer set up its Iran Regional Presence Office, which Burns said had already set up several cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Iran. The office’s diplomats arranged a U.S. wrestling team’s visit to Iran last week.

Burns said Washington would be a “willing partner” in support of civilian nuclear power programs in its six Gulf Arab allies, saying the Bush administration supports nuclear energy as a means to combat global warming.

But the diplomat said that Iran needs to halt its uranium enrichment as a precondition for any direct discussions with Washington. Several prominent U.S. leaders have urged the Bush administration to talk to Iran.

“It doesn’t make any sense to negotiate with Iran while their nuclear program is ongoing,” Burns said. “There is an entry fee to the game and everybody has to pay it. You too, Iran, have to pay it.”

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