SCOTT SIMON, Host:
But first, in Bahrain this morning, Defense Secretary Gates has said the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has complicated the administration's policy toward Tehran. But in a speech to Arab defense ministers, Secretary Gates did not take a conciliatory tone on Iran.
NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz is in Bahrain's capital and filed this report.
GUY RAZ: The Pentagon's line on the National Intelligence Estimate is in lockstep with the White House's. In short, Secretary Gates and his advisers insist that the NIE, which downplays Iran's nuclear program, actually vindicates the administration's strategy toward Tehran.
This 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's government. And Gates, clearly trying to mitigate the fallout from the report, acknowledged that parts of the NIE may have undermined the administration's approach.
SIMON: The estimate clearly has come at an awkward time. It has annoyed a number of our good friends. It has confused a lot of people around the world in terms of what we're trying to accomplish.
RAZ: But even with that candid and frank admission, the secretary refused to waiver from the Bush administration's traditional hard-line towards Tehran.
SIMON: Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos no matter the strategic value or the cost in the blood of innocents - Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
RAZ: An Iranian delegation was meant to be at this regional conference of Arab defense ministers, but at the last minute, they bailed out. The purpose of Gates' speech here and the recent strategy pursued by the administration is to convince Arab states that Iran poses as much a danger to them as it does, allegedly, to the United States.
SIMON: 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 interest of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing.
RAZ: But few Arab officials are buying it. One diplomat speaking on background said, quote, "It seems like America is trying to create a conflict between us and Iran."
The defense secretary is a man who has worked hard to cultivate an image of an internationalist, above Washington's partisan politics and independent voice in an administration that is not much liked abroad. But his speech here may have punctured some of that. Gates noted that during the 1970s, the United States kept the lines of communication open with the Soviet Union.
SIMON: It turned out that maintaining the dialogue helped each side better understand the other's intentions and laid the groundwork for gains that ultimately brought the Cold War to a close.
RAZ: But during a brief Q & A session afterwards, when an audience member pointed out that with respect to Iran, it might be wise to replicate that Cold War approach, Gates simply said it wouldn't be useful.
SIMON: I think that Iran has to take some steps to show that the dialogue would be meaningful instead of just sitting and shouting at each other across the table.
RAZ: Which, by the way, is how historians have characterized some of the U.S.-Soviet talks during the 1970s.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Manama, Bahrain.
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