March 10, 2010 / 10:14 PM / 7 years ago

Gates, in Riyadh, seeks Saudi help on Iran sanctions

RIYADH (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for support lobbying for U.N. sanctions against Iran on Wednesday and discussed ways to boost the kingdom's air and missile defenses.

The United States is leading a push for the U.N. Security Council to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme, and aides to Gates made no secret of their hopes that Saudi Arabia could press regional allies for help.

"We are certainly hopeful that the Saudis will use whatever influence they have, which is considerable, in this region and throughout the world to try to help us," said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, after the talks.

The visit is the latest in a string of high-level trips by U.S. officials to Saudi Arabia in recent months with Iran topping the agenda. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, have both traveled here.

A senior U.S. defense official said Saudi officials were supportive of Washington's shift to pressuring Iran, after attempts by President Barack Obama to engage Tehran failed to produce results.

Israel's U.N. envoy cautioned this week that the outlook for imposing tough new sanctions on Iran was increasingly grim, as Russia and China worked to slow down the effort.

"It was our strong impression that this overall approach was one that the Saudis were supportive of," the U.S. official said.

The United States has expanded land and sea-based missile defense systems in and around the Gulf to counter what it sees as Iran's growing missile threat, and arms sales to Gulf allies have risen sharply in recent years.

Saudi Arabia bought $3.3 billion in U.S. arms in fiscal 2009, according to a Pentagon estimate, and U.S. officials said Gates focused on broadening defenses further.

"The secretary described his interest in continuing to work with the Saudis and other countries in the Gulf to build up their air and missile defense capabilities," a U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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Part of the U.S. effort involves promoting integration of regional defenses in the Gulf, such as early warning systems.

"The Iranians are really a primary motivation for much of the region to stand up," the official said.

Before arriving in Riyadh, Gates and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traded barbs during briefly overlapping visits to Afghanistan earlier on Wednesday.

As an in Iraq, where the U.S. sees Iran meddling, Gates has accused Tehran of playing a "double game" in Afghanistan by being friendly to Kabul while undermining the U.S. war effort.

Ahmadinejad, at a separate event, said: "What are you even doing in this area? You are from 10,000 km over there. Your country is on the other side of the world."

Gates, who also met Saudi Arabia's crown prince, pressed for Saudi engagement in Iraq, particularly as Washington prepares to withdraw its forces by the end of 2011.

King Abdullah has refused to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki or open a Saudi embassy in Baghdad, and U.S. officials acknowledged little action was likely until the outcome of Iraq's Sunday parliamentary elections was clear.

"They're watching closely what the outcome of the election is. Hopefully, whatever results (they) will prevail upon them to be more engaged in Baghdad," the official said.

Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam, is alarmed at rising Iranian influence and the postwar dominance of Iraq's previously disempowered Shi'ite majority.

Initial results of Iraq's national election are likely be released by Thursday, but signs have already emerged of a strong showing for Maliki.

Gates also raised instability in Yemen, which U.S. and Saudi officials fear al Qaeda is exploiting in order to use the country as a base to prepare attacks in the region and beyond.

The Yemen-based regional arm of al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane in December, and the U.S. has stepped up counter-terrorism assistance to the country.

"The Saudis share our concerns ... (the threat has) been very real and close to the Saudis," the official said.

Editing by Noah Barkin and Jon Hemming

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