Iran General NewsGates talk suggests relations with Iran to remain tense

Gates talk suggests relations with Iran to remain tense

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ImageWall Street Journal: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has long advocated diplomatic engagement with Iran, an idea that is also a top priority of the incoming Obama administration.

The Wall Street Journal

By YOCHI J. DREAZEN and MARGARET COKER

ImageMANAMA, Bahrain — Defense Secretary Robert Gates has long advocated diplomatic engagement with Iran, an idea that is also a top priority of the incoming Obama administration.

But a high-profile security summit here is offering a vivid reminder of how hard it will be for the U.S. and Iran to move past their mutual mistrust.

Mr. Gates, in a speech to be delivered Saturday, accused Iran of fomenting instability in Iraq and continuing to pursue both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Iran's "every move seems designed to create maximum anxiety in the international community," Mr. Gates said, according to the prepared text of his remarks.

Iran sent only a low-ranking delegation to the conference. Conference organizers had earlier indicated that Tehran would send Ali Larijani, a prominent diplomat who was formerly the country's top nuclear negotiator.

The upshot is that the frosty U.S.-Iranian relationship seems unlikely to thaw anytime soon, despite hopes for a breakthrough under President-elect Barack Obama.

In the campaign, Mr. Obama said he would abandon a decades-long policy of isolating Iran and seek high-level talks with Tehran. He reiterated that position last weekend, telling NBC's Tom Brokaw he will pursue "tough but direct diplomacy with Iran."

Mr. Obama said he would offer Iran economic incentives if it abandoned its nuclear program but would seek to punish the country with tougher sanctions if it refused to cooperate. The U.S., he said, would let Iran "make a determination whether they want to do this the hard way or the easy way."

The comments appeared to disappoint Iranian leaders, who had greeted Mr. Obama's election with tentative signals that they would be willing to talk to the U.S. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had congratulated Mr. Obama on his victory, but this past week an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman accused the president-elect of believing in "the same old carrot-stick approach."

Many analysts doubt U.S.-Iranian relations will improve soon. "We are facing a lot of hurdles for resolving the U.S.-Iran issue," said Sadegh Kharazi, who twice served as Iran's deputy foreign minister. "Currently, our two nations are in a state of an active cold war that's limiting our economic and diplomatic opportunities."

Mr. Gates's views on Iran have evolved over the years. In 2004, he and Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, were co-chairmen of a Council on Foreign Relations task force that called for "selective political engagement with Iran" and "direct dialogue with Tehran on specific issues of mutual concern." In 2006, Mr. Gates was part of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which also advocated diplomatic outreach to Iran.

Since taking the helm of the Pentagon in December 2006, Mr. Gates has blended calls for diplomatic outreach with muscular denunciations of Iran's nuclear program and alleged support for Shiite militants inside Iraq. In a speech to a group of retired diplomats this year, Mr. Gates said the U.S. needed to "develop some leverage on Iran" and then "sit down and talk with them."

Speaking to the Manama summit last year, Mr. Gates said Iran was responsible for fomenting "instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or the cost in the blood of innocents — Christians, Jews and Muslims alike."

He also said the U.S. would "keep all our options open" when it came to Iran — a comment widely seen as a veiled threat to use military force if Iran didn't abandon its nuclear program.

Mr. Gates took a somewhat softer line in this year's speech. He said, according to the prepared text, that Tehran had "continued its pursuit of a nuclear program that is almost assuredly geared towards developing nuclear weapons" and was still supporting militants across the region. But he called for only modest measures against Iran in response. He asked U.S. allies in the region to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran and strengthen economic sanctions.

—Farnaz Fassihi contributed to this article.

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