ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Abu Dhabi Thursday looking to tighten pressure on Tehran, as Iran’s president warned Gulf countries against allowing a U.S. presence in the region.
A day after talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, aides said Gates would meet Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan to discuss U.S. efforts to push for U.N. sanctions against Iran.
“I look forward to meeting with the crown prince later this afternoon to discuss the deep and long-standing friendship between our nations,” Gates told reporters outside Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed mosque.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who traded barbs with Gates during overlapping visits in Afghanistan Wednesday, said Thursday Washington aimed to dominate Gulf energy resources in the name of fighting terrorism.
“They have not come here to restore security or to counter drug trafficking,” Ahmadinejad said in Iran.
Iran is expanding the scale, reach and sophistication of its ballistic missiles and has said it will hit back at Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf if it is attacked over its nuclear program. The West suspects Iran is seeking to make nuclear bombs, a charge Tehran denies.
The United States has also expanded land- and sea-based missile defense systems in and around the Gulf, according to U.S. officials.
The deployments include expanded land-based Patriot defensive missile installations in the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, as well as U.S. Navy ships with missile defense systems in and around the Mediterranean, the officials say.
Part of the U.S. effort also involves promoting integration of regional defences in the Gulf, such as early warning systems.
In fiscal 2009, UAE bought $7.9 billion in U.S. arms, topping Saudi Arabia, which bought $3.3 billion, according to a Pentagon estimate.
“Tiny UAE, which has about 5 million people ... this year will spend more than $11 billion on (foreign military sales),” said a U.S. official, who spoke ahead of Gates’ trip.
Speaking earlier in the day at a U.S. military base in southwest Asia, Gates said Iran was seeking to undermine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and “make our lives harder” by supporting the Taliban.
But he again stressed that such support was limited. “At this point the level of their effort I think is not a major problem for us,” Gates said.
Wednesday in Afghanistan, Ahmadinejad rejected those accusations and 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.”
In Abu Dhabi, Gates was also expected to discuss instability in Yemen. U.S. officials fear al Qaeda is exploiting Yemen’s instability to use the country as a base to prepare attacks in the region and beyond.
Additional reporting by Reza Derakhshi in Tehran; Editing by Dominic Evans