Robert Gates to discuss Iran with Oman's ruler: official

MUSCAT (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Oman Sunday for talks with Sultan Qaboos bin Said and was due to visit an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea that conducts operations supporting the war in Afghanistan.

The talks were expected to touch on issues including Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Afghanistan, a senior defense official said, adding that the visit was primarily a courtesy call tied to last month’s 40th anniversary of the sultan’s reign.

“This is the highest-level U.S. official to meet with the sultan during a very important and symbolic period,” the official said. “The sultan is widely regarded as among the region’s most erudite and insightful leaders in terms of regional trends and everything else.”

Oman maintains good relations with Iran and was instrumental in helping to negotiate the release of one of three U.S. hikers accused by Tehran of straying from Iraq into Iranian territory.

Oman has been pressing for the release of the two remaining hikers, who have been held since 2009.

The sultan also has pushed for a diplomatic solution to the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

“On Iran as you know we have this dual track approach of engagement ... while also holding Iran’s feet to the fire with sanctions to keep them honest,” the defense official said.

“The sultan has been very proactive in pushing for a diplomatic solution and so that’s helpful.”

Global powers are worried Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at making bombs, but Tehran says it only wants to produce energy.

The U.N. Security Council tightened sanctions against Iran this year, and Tehran is due to hold a new round of talks soon with representatives of the so-called P5+1, the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain -- plus Germany.

Gates will later fly to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea to visit sailors and airmen involved in supporting combat operations in Afghanistan. The visit will be his first as secretary of defense to a deployed aircraft carrier involved in supporting combat operations.

Asked if the visit to the ship was meant as a signal to Iran, the official said: “It’s more just a situation of timing. It’s not meant to signal any particular message.”

Editing by Maria Golovnina