U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is on a trip to the Middle East, where he says he will tell two key American allies they should not worry about any potential improvements in American relations with Iran.
Secretary Gates says he will tell Egyptian and Saudi leaders the Obama administration will not abandon long-time U.S. allies, if it manages to improve relations with Iran.
Gates said, "One important message will be, particularly for the Saudis, that any kind of outreach to Iran will not be at the expense of our long-term relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, that have been our partners and friends for decades. We will deal with this in a sensible way and in a way that hopefully increases the security of everybody in the region, not just us."
Gates: 'Be Realistic' About Iran
But Secretary Gates also told reporters traveling with him to Cairo that everyone concerned should be realistic about the prospects of any significant improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Gates said, "There's probably some concerns in the region that may draw on an exaggerated sense of what's possible. And, I just think it's important to reassure our friends and allies in the region that, while we're willing to reach out to the Iranians, as the president said, with an open hand, I think everybody in the administration, from the president on down, is pretty realistic, and will be pretty tough-minded if we still encounter a closed fist."
Gates also said he wants American friends in the Middle East, like mostly Sunni Muslim Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to work more closely with Iraq's Shiite-led government.
He said, "I think that, if the Arab world is concerned about Iranian influence in Baghdad, then the way to deal with that is to have more Arab influence in Baghdad, more ambassadors, more engagement with regional security arrangements that involve the Arab states. One way to allay their concerns is for them to reach out and be a counter-influence in Baghdad, and I think that's very important."
Egypt Key In Middle East Peace
Secretary Gates says Egypt has already taken what he called "some serious steps forward" toward engaging with the Iraqi leadership.
During his first stop, in Cairo, Gates says he will also discuss the Middle East peace process with Egyptian leaders who, he says, have played a "huge role" mediating between Israel and the Palestinians in the past. He also says he wants to talk about efforts to fight smuggling through the tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Palestinian faction, Hamas.
Later, in Riyadh, the secretary says he will discuss the possibility that Saudi Arabia might accept some of the Yemeni detainees from the Guantanamo detention center. He says the Saudi program for absorbing former detainees from Guantanamo is "the most successful of any country." Gates is co-chair of a committee President Barack Obama created to figure out how to close the controversial facility and transfer or put on trial most of its remaining 250 detainees. Gates says there are more Yemenis remaining at Guantanamo than any other nationality.