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Gates Europe Trip Takes on Middle Eastern Focus

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Al Pessin

The United States announced Wednesday it is freezing the assets of a senior commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, Gen. Rostam Qasemi, and four corporations it says are involved in spreading weapons of mass destruction.  The moves further tighten U.S. government efforts to pressure Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program, and come as the United States is working to convince the United Nations Security Council to impose broader sanctions.  The announcement also comes the day after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates returned from six days in Europe, focused largely on the Iran issue.

The Pentagon press secretary said the trip was intended in large part to nurture relationships with allies - relations that have lacked for attention with so much effort focused on Afghanistan.  But much of the time was spent discussing Iran, particularly after Sunday, when Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad ordered the resumption of uranium enrichment.

"No one has tried more sincerely to reach out and engage with the government of Iran than President Obama," said Robert Gates. "The results have been very disappointing."

Enrichment is a key step in the production of nuclear weapons and a direct slap at the international community's effort to convince President Ahmedinejad to send Iran's uranium abroad for enrichment.  The international plan is designed to control the quantity and quality of the uranium to ensure it is only used only for peaceful purposes.

With the announcement from Tehran drawing everyone's attention, Gates promoted the idea of shifting the focus of the effort on Iran from the patient pursuit of dialogue to what he said the international community has been holding in reserve.

"The only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track," he said.  "But it will require all of the international community to work together.  The point of the pressure is to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table and to resolve this issue in a way that prevents Iran from having a nuclear weapon."

And Gates got some support for that in Rome and Paris, including this comment from French Defense Minister Herve Morin.

Minister Morin said everyone believes it will be necessary, unfortunately, to begin discussing new sanctions if Iran refuses to stop its nuclear weapons program.

Turkey was the only stop where Secretary Gates did not appear at a joint media event with his hosts to receive an endorsement of the move toward sanctions.  That appeared to be part of an effort to keep open a pathway for dialogue with Iran, which he said Turkey is uniquely positioned to facilitate.

"Turkey is a valuable interlocutor when it comes to Iran," said Gates. "And I think it's important.  They are able to speak to the Iranians in a way that is difficult for us.  And so I think there are potential opportunities there."

Still, American officials traveling with the secretary said the United States wants the U.N. Security Council to move this month to impose sanctions focusing on Iran's government and having the least impact possible on the Iranian people.  That would follow the pattern set by Wednesday's announcement in Washington, which targets one senior Revolutionary Guard Corps commander (Gen. Rostam Qasemi) and four companies that the U.S. Treasury Department says control broad sectors of Iran's economy, freezing out private businesses and using their profits to support terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

A Russian statement Wednesday said the move toward sanctions "gains additional relevance" with the resumption of uranium enrichment.  But China has been reluctant to agree, and that may delay the process.

Secretary Gates set out on this trip to discuss a wide range of bi-lateral issues at each of his stops.  Officials say he did that, but the urgency of the Iran issue overshadowed any talk of military exchanges, equipment sales and even the NATO effort in Afghanistan.

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