MUSCAT, Oman – Tensions with Iran and the escalating terrorist threat in Yemen were main topics of discussion during U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' meeting Sunday with leaders in Oman.
An ally of both the United States and Iran, Oman has served as an intermediary in negotiations with Tehran, including successful mediation in October that led to the release of an American hiker held in an Iranian prison for more than a year.
Gates' visit comes against the backdrop of the recent WikiLeaks release of some quarter million sensitive and classified diplomatic memos — or cables in diplomatic parlance. Many underscore the Arab world's anxiety about Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
The cables detailed pleas from Arab leaders for action against Tehran, making public a broad sentiment that the largely Sunni Arab world generally only discusses in private about Shiite Iran. One of the stronger comments came from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah urging a U.S.-led attack against Iran to "cut off the head of the snake" and cripple its nuclear weapons program.
Leaders across the Middle East fear that Iran's development of nuclear power will trigger a deadly nuclear arms race in the region.
The U.S. and others, however, have employed a two track strategy with Iran, that is one part diplomacy and one part increased sanctions aimed at crippling Tehran's economy.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Gates said that Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said can communicate with Iran, and that productive relationship is valuable to the U.S.
Tehran, meanwhile, claimed another advance in its nuclear activities, saying Sunday that for the first time Iran had mined its own uranium, which can be processed into material used to make nuclear energy or nuclear weapons. The advance would give Iran a way to bypass U.N. sanctions.
Iran is under four sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions that forbid the supply of nuclear materials to Tehran.
Also worrisome is Oman's neighbor to the west — Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been gaining strength and plotting attacks against the U.S. and other Western interests. Officials have been trying to rally a more regional effort to help the poverty-stricken Yemen battle extremists within it borders while bolstering its economic and political stability.
Senior defense officials traveling with Gates said the secretary's trip is largely a courtesy call and a stopping-off point for a planned visit to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which is in the Arabian Sea between Oman and Pakistan.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said this will be Gates first visit to an aircraft carrier since he took the Defense Department post four years ago. The carrier is involved in operations in Afghanistan, regularly launching fighters to the battlefront to support the troops on the ground.
The WikiLeaks document release has set off a global uproar, with its public airing of diplomatic cables laying out blunt and critical assessments of world leaders and nations.
Gates meetings may well touch on the often embarrassing revelations, and concerns about America's inability to keep such sensitive reports private.
Hiker Sarah Shourd of California and two male companions were walking near the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 when they were detained by Iranian authorities and accused of illegally crossing into Iran and spying. Negotiations are continuing to gain the release of the other two, including Shourd's fiance.
Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil