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Gates Calls Mideast Changes a ‘Setback’ for Iran, al-Qaida

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (file photo)

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that extremists are suffering setbacks in the ongoing Middle East unrest because their message that change is impossible without violence is being proved wrong. At a news conference, Gates also reiterated statements by other U.S. officials that American military action in Libya is not likely, except for possible humanitarian missions.

Secretary Gates says the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the ongoing unrest in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries, proves that peaceful protesters, restrained security forces and responsive governments can bring change, and that change does not have to mean a move to militancy. He called the Middle East changes “an extraordinary setback” for al-Qaida.

“It basically gives the lie to al-Qaida’s claim that the only way to get rid of authoritarian governments is through extremist violence. And the peoples of several countries in the region are proving this not to be the case,” he said.

Gates said Iran also comes out a loser in the unrest, particularly because its security forces have repeatedly used violence to put down popular unrest.

“The behavior of the militaries in Tunisia and in Egypt, and, except for a brief period of violence, in Bahrain contrast vividly with the savage repression that the Iranians have undertaken against anybody who dares to demonstrate in their country,” Gates said.

Gates acknowledged that it will take months, probably years, to know the results of the current unrest. But he praised the beginning of what he called “a process of change” after years of “frozen” politics in many Middle Eastern countries. Gates said that even changes in countries closely allied with the United States, specifically Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would not jeopardize U.S. interests. He said those countries have implemented some reforms over the years, and that the process should continue. He called their the bilateral relationships with the United States“deep,” “strong and longstanding.”

Asked about Libya, the defense secretary indicated that direct U.S. military action is not likely, even though he has ordered at least two U.S. Navy ships into the Mediterranean Sea. Gates said the ships give President Barack Obama options, but that a new U.N. Security Council resolution “presumably” would be needed before force could be used, even to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya as some members of the U.S. Congress have suggested. Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Libyan opposition leaders do not want such intervention.

Gates said any action other than providing humanitarian relief would be very complex, could have far-reaching consequences and would have to be considered carefully.

“We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East. So I think we’re sensitive about all of these things, but we will provide the president with a full range of options,” he said.

Gates did not provide details, and said no decisions have been made about specific military action.