Iran tops agenda as Gates starts Mideast tour
by Carlos Hamann
AMMAN (AFP) - US Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Jordan on Monday at the start of a Middle East tour which American officials said is aimed at countering Iran's growing influence in the region.
Washington wants its allies Egypt and Jordan to offer more support for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at international meetings, a senior Defence Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It is also seeking greater opposition to Iran's controversial nuclear programme and to Iranian support for the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, the official added.
The United States has accused Iran of fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq and providing weapons and support to anti-US insurgents in the country.
In Amman, Gates will meet King Abdullah II and senior officials for talks on regional developments but "Iran in particular", the official said. "He's going to want to look and see what King Abdullah has to say about Iran."
Arms sales to the region will also be high on the agenda.
Egyptian media reported that Gates would travel to Cairo on Tuesday and urge President Hosni Mubarak's government to consider the purchase of modern weaponry.
He also will seek to reassure Israel over the planned US sales of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia, while pointing out that the exact package is still under consideration, the official said.
According to the New York Times, the package of arms for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries provisionally includes tanks, warships and advanced air defence systems valued at between five and 10 billion dollars.
Gates said he would hold talks with King Abdullah on "how we can contribute to his (peace) efforts and how the Jordanians can contribute to ours, not just in Iraq but in Lebanon (and) the Palestinian peace process."
Jordan's King Abdullah said in a recent interview with AFP that Israel must end its occupation of Arab land if it wants to "co-exist" with the world's Muslims.
The king also warned against a US withdrawal from Iraq without setting a timetable "and without preparing the necessary conditions that would ensure a strong central government able to run the affairs of the state."
Throughout the tour the defence secretary will seek support for the Gulf Security Dialogue, an umbrella framework for talks between the United States and the oil-rich Gulf Arab states.
The talks are focused on "common concerns about Persian hegemony in the region... (and) involvement of Shiite political movements in some countries, and how to mitigate that, and how to respond to that collectively," said the senior military official.
"The best way to confront Iran is to confront Iranian behaviour in Iraq," the official added. The trip will focus on "how we can work with strategic allies in the region" to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Monday that his country would not give in to Western demands over its nuclear drive, vowing that Tehran would "resist to the end".
The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, and the Islamic republic faces further punitive measures if it does not comply.
The United States has refused to rule out the option of military force to bring Iran to heel should sanctions fail to work.
"The Iranian people will stand firm on the nuclear issue to acquire all their rights, will continue solidly to reach the summits of perfection and will raise their fists to insist on their rights," Ahmadinejad said.
In a typically pugnacious speech in the southern city of Shiraz broadcast live on Iranian state television, Ahmadinejad also warned world powers not to misuse the UN Security Council.
"Give up your bullying methods! Otherwise rest assured that you will lose and you will impose great losses on your nations. What did you gain in Iraq, what did you gain in Palestine and Lebanon?" he asked.
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