Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Saudi leaders Wednesday that the U.S. effort for diplomatic engagement with Iran had come to naught, and he asked for the influential kingdom's help to win wide backing for biting economic penalties against Tehran.
The offer of talks with Iran to resolve doubts about the intent of its nuclear program remains on the table, U.S. officials said, but the United States has moved away from making outreach to Iran the primary goal.
"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 in our efforts at the U.N. so that we can get meaningful sanctions enacted against Iran," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said following Gates' sessions with Saudi King Abdullah and other senior leaders.
The predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East — and gulf nations in particular — have been wary of the growing influence of Shiite Iran, and Saudi Arabia has long warned of the potential for a nuclear arms race in the gulf region if Iran gained the bomb.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states see Iran's expanding missile capability as a more immediate threat.
The U.S. military is trying to reassure gulf allies by buttressing its defense systems with upgraded Patriot missiles on land and more U.S. Navy ships capable of destroying missiles in flight.
The Patriot missile systems, which originally were deployed in the region to shoot down aircraft, have been upgraded to hit missiles in flight.
Iran claims its nuclear program is aimed at the peaceful production of energy. The United States and Western allies openly scoff at that claim, and worry that Iran is closing on the means to build a weapon is behind the latest push for U.N. Security Council penalties on Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps.
If approved, the new sanctions would be the fourth set of penalties applied to Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
The Saudi foreign minister has expressed doubts about the usefulness of more sanctions on Iran, saying the world needs a quicker and more direct approach.
"We see the issue in the shorter term because we are closer to the threat," Prince Saud al-Faisal said when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the Saudi capital in February. "We need immediate resolution rather than gradual resolution."
Gates held no public events with Saudi officials Wednesday.
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