Press Availability with Secretary Gates Following Meeting with Leaders in Saudi Arabia and Qatar from Bahrain
SEC. GATES: I trust you all are as fresh and rested as I am -- (laughter) --
Q Oh, absolutely!
SEC. GATES: Well, very quickly, I'm very pleased with my meetings with His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and His Highness the Emir of Qatar. We had wide-ranging discussions on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and the overall situation in the Gulf. I told the Emir that I was very pleased with our military-to-military cooperation, and I thanked both of them for their support of us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both made it clear that they hoped to see us succeed in Iraq.
My briefings today at NAVCENT here in Bahrain, and at CENTCOM in Qatar, gave me a better understanding of the role of the Navy and the Air Force in our military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the region as a whole. And it's pretty clear that their role, together with that of our ground forces, ensure that we cannot be defeated militarily in any of these theaters or in the region as a whole.
And finally, I'd just like to thank the men and women of the armed forces I saw today, like those that I've seen over the past several days, for their commitment, their dedication, and their willingness to serve.
Be happy to take some questions.
Q Sir, if I could ask you again about the al-Maliki administration in Iraq, a week later he's not issued a really supportive statement about the plan, and in fact, quite the opposite to some other reporters, not American reporters. And there seemed to be -- there were criticisms yesterday or critical statements yesterday by the president and the secretary of state of Mr. Maliki.
What's your view going in, and the fact that -- going into Iraq -- and the fact that he hasn't supported the plan, and you're saying you're getting support around here, but Iraq itself.
SEC. GATES: Really, as I said in my testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee almost a week ago, I think that the prime minister wanted to do this by himself, or to have the Iraqis do this on their own. He wants to take the lead, he wants to show he's in charge. He wants to show that his government can deliver. I think it was in conversations with our military that his military and security advisers suggested to him that their own forces needed some help from the Americans. I think he probably wishes that weren't so. And so it really doesn't surprise me that he has not embraced this fully. I think he goes into this wishing that the Iraqis could do it on the own.
Q But this is the president -- I mean, the president said this is Maliki's plan.
SEC. GATES: It is Maliki's plan. The problem is -- and to tell you the truth, I haven't -- Maliki's plan was presented before I arrived here -- I mean, arrived in this position, and so I'm not exactly sure how detailed it was. And I suspect that what happened was that as his military and security advisers began to flesh it out and sort of how do we actually make this happen, and they consulted with General Casey and his leadership team, that it became clear that additional support was probably needed at the time.
Q Mr. Hakim, the head of security, was quoted in the press, saying that the arrest of the Iranians in Irbil was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Has he complained or has the Iraqi government complained about that incident to the U.S.? And does the Hakim statement concern you?
SEC. GATES: I've been on the road, and I'm not aware of any protest or concern -- statement of concern by the Iraqi government at this point.
Q Does his statement concern you at all or what do you think?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think the fact that the first operation where the Iranians were detained -- it was in a compound of Mr. Hakim's -- kind of speaks for itself in this situation.
Q In your conversations with the Saudi leaders, did they have any suggestions or recommendations with regard in particular to Anbar province as far as moving forward there with the Sunni population?
SEC. GATES: No.
Q Didn't come up?
SEC. GATES: No.
Q Did they make any assurances that they would, you know, undertake -- you know, to assist the plan in Iraq, anything specific that you can pass along that they are going to be doing or --
SEC. GATES: I --
Q Them or the Qataris?
SEC. GATES: I encouraged His Majesty to consider any assistance they could provide, an economic and reconstruction -- economic development and reconstruction. I think he listened, but he made no commitments.
Q Did they have any suggestions about how to bring the Sunni population into the political process, process in Iraq?
SEC. GATES: No.
Q Mr. Secretary, you said both the leaders you've spoken to in the past 24 hours want America to succeed, but did they express full confidence in the plan that you've presented to allow you to succeed?
SEC. GATES: I would say that they expressed hope.
Q Were you able to -- could you perhaps elaborate a little bit on their concerns and how you addressed them?
SEC. GATES: I think they're both concerned about the situation in the country and the level of violence. I think they -- I hestitate to speak for them; they can speak for themselves. But I think what I took from their comments was clearly concern about whether the government of Prime Minister Maliki can actually deliver on its commitments. Quite frankly, these are reservations that have been expressed in Washington, and we will be watching.
Q Mr. Secretary, could you give us your reaction to the congressional resolution regarding the war reintroduced this week?
SEC. GATES: No, I really don't have any comment.
Q Mr. Secretary, could you talk a little bit about -- the Qataris and the Saudis both expressed concern about the Iranian situation. What did you discuss with them, and what are their reactions?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would -- I will leave any characterization of their position to them to comment. But I told them that I felt that the Iranians were being very aggressive, that they felt that they -- that I believe the Iranians believe they have the United States at some disadvantage because of the situation in Iraq, a different situation than I think applied in 19 -- in 2004 when I think they were very concerned about us being on both their east and western borders and weren't sure what might come next; and that I thought that -- in fact, to be precise, I told them both that I thought the Iranians were overplaying their hand and that one of the consequences of that was that they had raised real concerns on the part of a number of countries in the region and beyond about their intentions, and that, ultimately, that was in all of our interests, that people have an appreciation for Iran's ambitions.
Q Why do you think they're overplaying their hand? Do you not share their analysis that America's difficulties in Iraq have given them an opportunity?
SEC. GATES: I think that our difficulties have given them a tactical opportunity in the short term, but the United States is a very powerful country.
Q Did the Gulf states -- those you spoke with, suggest to you that they would very much appreciate or expect military support, or more aggressive military support?
SEC. GATES: For them, or --
Q No, actually from the United States, I'm sorry -- as being ready to take military action against Iran.
SEC. GATES: No, I think that -- look, nobody wants another conflict in this region. My view is that these matters -- that there are many courses of action available that do not involve a conflict, an open conflict with Iran. There's no need for that.
Q Mr. Secretary, in that same vein, some people have argued that during the Cold War, the United States negotiated with the Soviet Union, and why would this -- why shouldn't the United States negotiate with Iran? And what is your view on that?
SEC. GATES: Well, as you've probably heard me say before, I co-chaired this Council on Foreign Relations study with Dr. Brzezinski in 2004, in which I called for, and which we recommended, talking to the Iranians and engaging with the Iranians. But the truth is, the situation has changed since then. The Iranians in 2004 were actually being helpful, in some respects, in Iraq. And I think it was partly because they were very concerned about what the United States might do. And they had American forces on their eastern border in Afghanistan, and they had American forces on their border on the west in Iraq.
But our difficulties in Iran [sic], I think, have emboldened them and have led them to believe that they have some real opportunities. So I think that the -- sorry, I lost my train of thought.
Q Would negotiations not be the way to go --
SEC. GATES: And frankly, right at this moment, there's really nothing the Iranians want from us. And so in any negotiation, right now we would be the supplicant. We want you to stop doing X, Y and Z. There's really not very much that the Iranians need from us.
One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick the Great, is "Negotiations without arms are like notes without instruments." We need some leverage, it seems to me, before we engage with the Iranians. And I think at some point engagement probably makes sense.
And the truth is, Secretary Rice has made clear she's willing to meet with her counterpart from Iran any time, any place if they will stop their nuclear enrichment.
So I think, you know, the invitation is out there. I think until the Iranians have some sense that the United States is in fact a formidable adversary, that there's not much advantage for us for engaging with them.
Q Does that explain in part the movement of a second carrier into the Gulf area?
SEC. GATES: We intend to be here for a long time.
STAFF: One more question.
Q Based on intelligence briefings you've received since you've become Defense secretary -- now four weeks --
SEC. GATES: An old-timer. (Laughter.)
Q -- have you been able to get a better sense on when Iran will pass the point of no return?
SEC. GATES: No, and I think these -- I think there's too much -- a comment that I've made to several of the leaders I've met with is that unfortunately history does not move at television time. And there are some very broad developments under way, and they're going to take some time to play out. So I think there's no real timetable.
Q But meanwhile they're enriching uranium.
SEC. GATES: Absolutely true. But there's also some indications that they've had some trouble with it. So --
Q Mr. Secretary, did you detect any concern from the leaders that you've talked to about the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian confrontation, or do they see it the other way around, that that would be something that they would not mind?
SEC. GATES: No, I -- as I said a moment ago, I don't think anybody wants another military conflict in this region. But there clearly is concern about Iranian ambitions, and they certainly expect the United States to play a role in containing those ambitions.