In the Mideast, Gates Tries to Back Administration

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A new intelligence report on Iran's nuclear program has complicated the administration's policy toward Tehran, Defense Secretary Robert Gates admits. But Iran still poses a grave threat, Gates said.

Speaking to Arab defense ministers at a Bahrain conference, Gates did not take a conciliatory tone on Iran. Gates and his advisors insist that the NIE actually reaffirms the administration's strategy.

While that view of the National Intelligence Estimate is in lock-step with the White House, it was not how Arab defense ministers interpreted that same document.

To the contrary, many believe it discredits the Bush administration's bellicose rhetoric toward Tehran. And Gates, clearly trying to mitigate the fallout from the report, acknowledged that parts of the NIE may have undermined the administration's approach.

"The estimate clearly has come at an awkward time," Gates said. "It has annoyed a number of our friends, it has confused our allies around the world in terms of what we're trying to accomplish."

But even with that candid and frank admission, the Secretary refused to waver from the Bush administration's traditional hard-line towards Tehran.

"Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos," Gates said, "no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents — Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike."

An Iranian delegation was meant to be at this regional conference of Arab defense ministers. But at the last minute, they backed out.

The purpose of the speech, and the recent strategy pursued by the Bush administration, is to convince Arab states that Iran poses as much a danger to them as the administration believes it does to the United States.

"There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing."

But few Arab officials are buying it. One diplomat, speaking on background, said that "it seems like America is trying to create a conflict between us and Iran."

Secretary Gates is a man who has worked hard to cultivate an image of an internationalist — above Washington's partisan politics — an independent voice in an administration that is not much liked abroad.

But his speech in Bahrain may have punctured Gates' image. He noted that during the 1970s, the United States kept the lines of communication open with the Soviet Union.

"It turned out that maintaining that dialogue helped each side better understand the other's intentions," Gates said, "and laid the groundwork for gains that ultimately brought the Cold War to a close."

But during a brief question session, when an audience member pointed out that it might be wise to replicate the Cold War approach with Iran, Gates simply said, it wouldn't be useful.

"I think that Iran has to take some steps to show that a dialogue would be meaningful instead of just sitting and shouting at each other across the table," Gates said.

That picture, by the way, is how historians have characterized some of the U.S.-Soviet talks during the 1970s.

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