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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Pentagon Chief Pushes Mideast Arms Buildup Against Iran

Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged US allies in the Arab world to strengthen their military capabilities and defense cooperation with Washington as a means of pressuring Iran to back off its nuclear program.

In an interview with Al Jazeera that was to be aired Monday, Gates said the United States still favored diplomatic and economic approaches to the challenges posed by Iran and its nuclear program.

But, according to a transcript of the interview, Gates said "one of the pathways to get the Iranians to change their approach on the nuclear issue is to persuade them that moving down that path will actually jeopardize their security, not enhance it.

"So the more that our Arab friends and allies can strengthen their security capabilities, the more they can strengthen their co-operation, both with each other and with us, I think sends the signal to the Iranians that this path they're on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it," he said.

Gates said he did not know how much US arms sales to the region now totalled, but disputed a 100 billion figure cited by Al-Jazeera as sounding "very high to me."

The defense secretary also questioned whether Iran had gained lasting clout in Iraq, and by extension in the region, as a result of the 2003 US invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and brought the country's Shiite majority to power.

"I think that a strong and democratic Iraq, particularly one with a multi-sectarian government, becomes a barrier to Iranian influence and not a bridge for it," he said.

"So I think, in the short term, perhaps Iran's position was strengthened somewhat but I think if you look to the longer term, and the role that Iraq can play in the region going forward, I think that Iran's position may well be diminished," he said.

He said Iraq's leaders were "first and foremost Iraqis."

"After all none of them have forgotten the eight years of war that they fought with Saddam Hussein and they haven't forgotten that Saddam Hussein started that war," he said.

His comments appeared the same day the outgoing chief of International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, complained of an "impasse" with Iran over its nuclear program.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier said Iran was preparing a package of proposals for resumed talks with six major powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

But he said Iran would not negotiate on its "undeniable" nuclear rights.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Iran had not communicated with the White House about its plans to resume talks.