A second U.S. aircraft carrier strike group now steaming toward the Middle East is Washington's way of warning Iran to back down in its attempts to dominate the region, a top U.S. diplomat said here Tuesday.
Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, ruled out direct negotiations with Iran and said a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran was "not possible" until Iran halts uranium enrichment.
"The Middle East isn't a region to be dominated by Iran. The Gulf isn't a body of water to be controlled by Iran. That's why we've seen the United States station two carrier battle groups in the region," Burns said in an address to the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, an influential think-tank.
"Iran is going to have to understand that the United States will protect its interests if Iran seeks to confront us," Burns continued.
Iran is in a standoff with the West over its defiance of U.N. demands to halt uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Iran says its atomic program is aimed solely at generating energy, but the United States and some of its allies suspect it is geared toward making weapons. The U.N. imposed limited sanctions on Iran last month.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the United States Tuesday of stirring up conflict between rival Muslim sects to maintain U.S. influence in the Middle East.
"The U.S. intends to cause insecurity and dispute and weaken independent governments in the region to continue with its dominance over the Middle East and achieve its arrogant goals," Ahmadinejad said during a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.
"The U.S. and Zionist regime have a conspiracy to stir up conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in order to plunder the wealth of the regional nations," the president said, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA.
Ahmadinejad said last week that Iran is "ready for anything" in its confrontation with the United States.
Iran conducted missile tests on Monday, the first of five days of military maneuvers southeast of Tehran.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the U.S. buildup in the Gulf was intended to impress on Iran that the four-year war in Iraq has not made America vulnerable.
The American aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and several accompanying ships are heading toward the Gulf to join an aircraft carrier group already in the region, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Stennis is expected to arrive in late February.
The Stennis' arrival in the Middle East will mark the first time since the U.S.-led Iraq invasion in 2003 that the United States has had two carrier battle groups in the region.
The U.S. Navy said Tuesday that the minesweeper USS Gladiator arrived in the Persian Gulf, one of six such ships — four American, two British — now plying the Gulf for anti-ship mines. U.S. officials have long said Iran was likely to block busy Gulf shipping lanes in a conflict.
Some among the audience of Dubai-based diplomats and analysts complained that American wars in the Middle East were already threatening the region's stability and asked Burns to sort out Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict before turning attention to Iran.
"What we are not interested in is another war in the region," Mohammed al-Naqbi, who heads the Gulf Negotiations Center, told Burns. "Iraq is your problem, not the problem of the Arabs. You destroyed a country that had institutions. You handed that country to Iran. Now you are crying to Europe and the Arabs to help you out of this mess."
Burns' speech appeared to respond to similar comments by Iranian officials in Dubai and Bahrain last month. In December, Iran's top national security adviser, Ali Larijani, appealed to Gulf Arabs to shut down American bases on their soil and instead join Iran in a regional security alliance.