Reuters: The Bush administration, beset by new signs of Iran's growing influence in the Middle East, has moved to reassure Arab allies with what analysts call its most credible voice in the region: Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
By David Morgan – Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Bush administration, beset by new signs of Iran's growing influence in the Middle East, has moved to reassure Arab allies with what analysts call its most credible voice in the region: Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Some analysts believe the administration is using Gates to voice a more nuanced U.S. rhetoric on Iran that still speaks firmly and holds out the possibility of military action but also adds an element of more constructive engagement.
Twice in as many weeks, Gates has spoken publicly about the need to increase pressure on Tehran while raising the prospect — however remote — of high-level talks between the two countries that severed diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
The message has since been reinforced in testimony to the Senate by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
"The administration is not just making random comments," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Robert Gates has more credibility in the Middle East than any other member of the administration. And the fact is that, for Arabs, the indispensable part of American power is military power."
Other analysts say Gates, known as a policy maverick, might simply be asserting his own opinion on Iran with support from a loyal adjutant.
"I don't think this administration sends any signals. It's not that the Pentagon has suddenly popped up on Iran. It's that everyone else has forgotten," said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.
Washington and Tehran held low-level talks on Afghanistan in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that ousted the Taliban regime and more recently on stability in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003. The talks on Iraq broke off last year after just three rounds.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has held out the possibility of high-level talks, but only if Iran first suspends uranium enrichment activities that the West fears could produce a nuclear weapon.
Tehran, which says its nuclear program is purely for civilian energy production, has refused to meet that condition.
Speaking at a Washington diplomatic forum on May 14 and before the Senate on May 20, Gates said the United States should raise pressure on Iran as a means of pushing the Islamic Republic to engage in talks.
"The key here is developing leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures on the Iranian government, so that they believe they must have talks," Gates told a Senate appropriations panel.
Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell said the Pentagon chief was advocating unofficial contact on a "peoples-to-peoples basis."
LOSS OF U.S. INFLUENCE
But some analysts believe Gates was responding to a series of Iranian successes in the Middle East — from Hezbollah's political gains in Lebanon to what one analyst described as Tehran's apparent ability to "dial up and dial down" Shi'ite violence in Iraq.
"There's a feeling in the administration that we've lost the ability to set the agenda in the Middle East over the last couple of weeks," said a former U.S. official who closely monitors events in the region.
Arab allies have little faith in the Bush administration's ability to deal diplomatically with Iranian advances and worry that the harder U.S. line backed by Vice President Dick Cheney could inflame the region, analysts said.
"Of all the players in the Bush administration, people around the world listen to Secretary Robert Gates the most, closely followed by Gen. David Petraeus," said Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security.
Analysts said Gates is viewed as an experienced, knowledgeable and independent thinker whose status as the custodian of America's military might carried added weight both with Arab leaders and Iran.
"The administration is trying to be firm but calming. It's trying to send the message that there's no imminent attack but the international community's demands will be backed up by a potential use of force," Alterman said.
Brimley said the mention of talks also coincides with Washington's efforts to persuade Iran to restrain Iraqi Shi'ite militants as the Bush administration seeks to hand over a relatively stable Iraq to a new U.S. president next January.
"The real question is how deep this commitment goes: Does it signal a new U.S. understanding of regional dynamics or is it just a kind of short-term way to get Iran to dial down its activities in Iraq?" Brimley said.
"It could be that, after eight years of cowboy diplomacy, we finally move back to a more conventional, conservative realist position."
(Editing by Frances Kerry and John O'Callaghan)