Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington Saturday on a trip to Qatar and Saudi Arabia and talks with U.S. allies on Iran and efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The Obama administration has been helping Gulf states upgrade defenses in the face of Iranian nuclear efforts.
Clinton delayed the start of her Gulf trip by one day to fly to New York to be with her husband, the former President Bill Clinton who was briefly hospitalized for a heart procedure.
But aides to the Secretary say the fact she is going through with her trip underscores the importance she attaches to her consultations with Gulf allies.
The Obama administration has in recent weeks been quietly helping several Gulf states, apprehensive about Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, build up their defenses with, among other things, U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries.
The Iranian government has fueled concerns about its nuclear intentions by spurning big-power offers to help it meet civilian nuclear power needs.
This week - in connection with the 31st anniversary of the country's Islamic revolution - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh boasted of being able to enrich uranium to 20 per cent or even 80 per cent, a level nearly high enough to produce a nuclear weapon.
Briefing reporters on the eve of Clinton's departure, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Iran could ease regional anxiety by returning to serious talks on its nuclear program.
State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley (file photo)
"These ongoing statements and ongoing actions are counterproductive, and they really call into question whether Iranian claims that their intentions are peaceful are in fact true," said P.J. Crowley.
In Doha, first stop on the trip, Clinton will deliver an address at a forum on U.S.-Islamic relations and meet with Qatari leaders and other officials attending the conference including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In Saudi Arabia early next week, she meets with King Abdullah, principal sponsor of the 2003 Arab League peace initiative offering Israel full relations with Arab states if it made peace with the Palestinians and left occupied land.
Crowley said Clinton will try to generate more active Arab support for ongoing efforts by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going again.
"Part of our discussion will be how we push, prod cajole the parties into that negotiation through which we think we can ultimately arrive at a satisfactory peace agreement," he said.
The spokesman said U.S. Undersecretary of State for political affairs William Burns will meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on regional peace efforts on a trip next week that will also take him to Lebanon, Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The Obama administration is preparing to send an ambassador to Syria for the first time since 2005, when it withdrew its envoy after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in which U.N. investigators implicated Syrian operatives.