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How can Iran be stopped from getting a nuclear bomb? That was the question facing Defense Secretary Robert Gates today in meetings both in Jerusalem and Amman. Gates is visiting the Middle East for talks with key allies.
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is traveling with him. And as she reports, so far the subject of Iran's nuclear ambitions has dominated the trip.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Secretary Gates' plane touched down in Jerusalem early this morning. It's his first trip to Israel in more than two years. And Gates seemed eager to stress common ground as he faced reporters' questions at a packed news conference at the historic King David Hotel.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): Well, there's no question that a nuclear armed Iran would be profoundly destabilizing to the entire region and a threat certainly to Israel and a threat to the United States and other states, as well. I think we are in full agreement on the negative consequences of Iran obtaining this kind of a capability.
KELLY: But how to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear capability is a point of great contention. The U.S. wants to engage Iran in talks, diplomacy. So far Iran has not responded and Gates stressed today it is not an open-ended offer.
Sec. GATES: We're very mindful of the possibility that the Iranians would simply try to run out the clock. I think that the president is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of a response this fall.
KELLY: At the press conference, Gates' old friend as he put it, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, listened politely as Gates laid out the U.S. view on diplomatic engagement. But when it was his turn to speak, Barak left no doubt Israel is running out of patience.
Mr. EHUD BARAK (Defense Minister, Israel): If there is an engagement, we believe it should be short in time, well defined in objectives.
KELLY: And Israel's Barak said all options, meaning military strikes, are on the table.
Mr. BARAK: This is our policy. We mean it. We recommend to others to take the same position, but we cannot dictate it to anyone.
KELLY: U.S. defense officials say the Obama administration is not anywhere close to seriously considering military strikes on Iran. But on another option, the Israelis are pushing tougher sanctions. Gates suggested later today there may be possibilities. After he wrapped up in Jerusalem, Gates' entourage made the 20-minute flight to Jordan's capital, Amman.
Secretary Gates spent the afternoon in talks with King Abdullah and his defense chief. Then he faced another news conference. This time behind the fortress-like walls and blast barriers that guard the U.S. embassy in Amman. Gates was asked about binding United Nations sanctions.
Sec. GATES: If the engagement process is not successful, the United States is prepared to press for significant additional sanctions. We would try and get international support for a much tougher position. Our hope still remains that Iran will respond to the president's outstretched hand in a positive and constructive way.
KELLY: And soon, one point of agreement here in the Middle East, the Iran question is urgent. U.S intelligence now estimates Iran is only one to three years away from a nuclear weapons capability.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Amman.
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