AFP: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates flew into the Saudi capital on Wednesday for talks expected to focus on Iran's nuclear programme and Washington's push for tough sanctions against Tehran. By Dan De Luce
RIYADH (AFP) — US Defence Secretary Robert Gates flew into the Saudi capital on Wednesday for talks expected to focus on Iran's nuclear programme and Washington's push for tough sanctions against Tehran.
Gates was due to meet King Abdullah as the Obama administration kept up a concerted effort to rally international support for punitive sanctions against Iran, despite misgivings by China and other countries.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the Gulf are "incredibly concerned about Iran's nuclear programme," as well as its growing missile arsenal and "destabilising" role in the region, a US defence official told reporters.
"The secretary will provide an update about where we are on our policy on Iran," as Washington moves away from conciliatory moves to "the pressure track," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Frustrated with Iran's response to US overtures for dialogue, the Obama administration has shifted its emphasis, vowing to pile pressure on the Islamic republic to persuade it to abandon its uranium enrichment work.
The diplomatic climate has shifted since Gates last visited Riyadh last May, when he had to reassure an anxious Saudi leadership that President Barack Obama's offer of dialogue with Tehran would not jeopardise Washington's close ties with the kingdom.
Although Saudi leaders view Iran as a regional threat, they have yet to openly embrace Washington's campaign for more sanctions.
The UN Security Council has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment which Israel and the West view as a cover to build nuclear weapons.
Tehran denies the charge, saying the programme is for peaceful nuclear energy.
Gates was scheduled to confer with the king at a desert palace on the outskirts of Riyadh, after meeting Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the king's half-brother and minister of defence and aviation since 1962.
The Pentagon chief planned to discuss bolstering Saudi "air and missile defence capabilities" as part of a broader US effort to boost security in the Gulf in the face of Iran's expanding arsenal of ballistic missiles, the defence official said.
The United States has promised to speed up weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies, which have bought billions of dollars worth of American weapons in recent years.
Washington has approved 18.7 billion dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia from 2005 to 2009, according to government figures, including a sophisticated upgrade to the kingdom's Patriot missile defence batteries.
US officials believe the arms buildup in the Gulf sends a clear signal to Iran that its nuclear and missile programmes are counter-productive.
"It's not lost on the Iranians all the security cooperation that's been going on for years now," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
The warplanes and missile defence systems bought by the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and other states were "all designed to counter-weight and protect against the growing threat posed by Iran," Morrell said.
"As Iran becomes more menacing, we're seeing greater (security) cooperation" among Gulf states that previously had been reluctant to work together, he said.
Apart from Iran, Gates will discuss efforts to fight Al-Qaeda's branch in neighbouring Yemen, blamed for attempting to blow up a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day, officials said.
There were "still major concerns about the stability of Yemen and the threat posed by Al-Qaeda on the Arabian peninsula," the defence official said. "It's a challenge that the Saudis feel acutely sharing a border with Yemen."
Days after Iraq's elections, Gates planned to renew US appeals for Saudi to step up its diplomatic engagement with Baghdad, despite the kingdom's suspicions about Iranian influence with Iraq's leading Shiite political parties.
Gates arrived in Saudi Arabia from three days in Afghanistan where he reviewed war efforts against the Taliban and conferred with coalition troop commanders.
Arriving in Kabul as Gates left the country, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lashed out at the defence secretary and the United States for its troop presence in the country.
"We do not see the presence of foreign military forces in Afghanistan as a solution for peace in Afghanistan," Ahmadinejad told a news conference.