Press Conference with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at Cairo, Egypt
SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. It was good to be in Egypt again. I’d like to start by thanking President Mubarak, the Egyptian government, and the Egyptian people for their gracious hospitality during this visit.
This morning I have very productive meetings with both President Mubarak and Field Marshal Tantawi. I first met President Mubarak nearly 20 years ago, and over the years multiple American presidents and administrations have benefited from his wise counsel. I appreciated the opportunity to continue that dialog today.
We discussed a number of security issues including Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli issue, next steps in Iraq, and the opportunities for more cooperation among the nations of the Middle East.
It will take full participation and leadership from Egypt to see progress on these issues, as has always been the case. For some time I have considered Egypt to be one of America’s most important partners. The United States has longstanding military-to-military relationships and other activities with the Egyptian military, to include the Bright Star exercises.
Our own military has benefited from the interaction with the Egyptian armed forces, one of the most professional and capable in the region. We are always looking for ways to expand these ties through education, training and exercises. In these and other security matters, I look forward to further cooperation between our two countries in the future.
Q (Off mike) — Al Jazeera English. You mentioned before coming here that your country assured both Egypt and Saudi Arabia about the new approach towards Iran and also to be realistic. By ‘realistic’ did you mean that what the United States did before, confrontation and sanctions, or that the new approach of — (inaudible) — and things like that? There is only one goal is to solve the Iranian nuclear program, and that means reassuring the region that this won’t be used against them?
SEC. GATES: Our goal really is two-fold. Obviously we want to try and stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, but we also are interested in stopping Iran’s destabilizing efforts throughout the region. And I think that there is very broad concern in the region about Iran and its activities. And our goal is to continue working with our friends in the region but at the same time see if there is an opportunity to begin trying to influence Iran to change its activities, its behavior, in the area.
Reaching out to Iran with an open hand in no way minimizes or changes the strong security relationship and strong political relationship that the United States has with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and our other long-term friends in the region.
If we encounter a closed fist when we extend our open hand, then we will react accordingly. But we think, the President believes that it is important for us to at least reach out to Iran and provide an opportunity to begin a dialog. But the focus of that dialog is on Iran’s behavior, and uppermost in our minds is taking measures necessary with our partners in the region to maintain their security and their stability, in particular against Iranian subversive activities.
Q The U.S. military relationship with Egypt — (inaudible) — the U.S. military declaration — (inaudible) — U.S. assistance to Egypt under the previous administration was linked to human rights progress. Is the Obama administration changing or shifting that policy? Did you hear concerns here in your talks about the level of U.S. military assistance to Egypt?
SEC. GATES: Well, clearly, the United States always is supportive of human rights, and that is no less true of the Obama administration than other administrations. By the same token, it is important to continue our work and our friendship with these countries. And the position of the administration is that as an example the foreign military financing that’s in the budget should be without conditions. And that is our sustained position.
Q (Inaudible) — the U.S. eager to do everything concerned with — (inaudible) — in the future and the fear of Israel — (inaudible) — Middle East free from mass destruction weapons? Thank you.
SEC. GATES: Well, I think the President has been very clear in his speech when he was in Europe about his desire to have a nuclear-weapons-free world. He hasn’t broken that down by region. Clearly that is our long-term objective.
Q Mr. Secretary, given the rising concern over instability in Pakistan, what are your expectations for a high-level meeting in Washington this week regarding the way that Saudi Arabia could play a greater role? What specifically could the Saudis do in helping to ease the problems in Pakistan, and are you going to make any request of them in that regard?
SEC. GATES: Well, as I said the other day, I think that the recent Taliban attacks that reached within 60 kilometers of Islamabad perhaps served as a wake-up call, if you will, to many in Pakistan that the Taliban operating inside Pakistan and other extremist groups have become a real danger to the Pakistani government. I think their response in sending the Army into Buner and beginning to deal with that situation is really a recognition of that threat.
And so my hope is that during the talks in Washington next week that their role during the next few days is that there will be a common agreement on the nature of the threat and the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan working closely together and with the United States to try, and our partners, to try and deal with that threat.
With respect to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia clearly has a lot of influence throughout the entire region. They have a long-standing close relationship with Pakistan. And I think the key here is all of us doing what we can to help the Pakistani government deal with the emergent threat to its own existence from these violent extremists. And I think the Saudis along with other countries can play a constructive role in that.
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: I’m not sure I understood the question.
Q (Off mike) — critical. Next month is the election of Iran — (inaudible) — so if not, do you support Israel if they have to attack Iran?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think those are completely different questions. I would say that I do not expect this dialog to—first of all, there is no dialog yet. There have been a few initial contacts, but there is no sustained dialog yet between the United States and Iran. And I expect it to develop, if it develops at all, will develop over a period of time. The United States goes into this with its eyes wide open. There have been previous attempts to establish a dialog with the Iranian government, and they have not proven successful. Our hope is that this time, as the President expressed it, if we extend an open hand that perhaps we will get something similar in response.
But I don’t expect this to develop in a way that would have any impact whatsoever on the Iranian election. I don’t think it will develop that quickly. And I’m not sure that even as it develops it would have any impact on that.
I continue to believe that we need to address our concerns with Iran. While all options are available of course, I believe that it is important to try and address our concerns about their nuclear weapons program through diplomatic and economic pressures, through trying to isolate Iran, toward building up the security capabilities of our friends in the region, and through cooperation with the Europeans, the Russians, and others to try and show Iran that its behavior is unwelcome to virtually all of the countries in the world.
Q Mr. Secretary, you mentioned on the plane on the way over that you felt some concerns in this region about the U.S. outreach to Iran were the result of an exaggerated sense of what might be possible. Can you expand on that? What in your view is a realistic expectation of what might be possible for an improved relationship with Iran?
SEC. GATES: Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what might be possible. I’ve been around long enough to see these efforts attempted before and with no result. The question is whether circumstances in Iran have changed in such a way that with the new administration offering an opportunity for contact, whether the Iranians are willing to take advantage of that opportunity.
I think that there’s, as I say I think it’s a dialog that if it happens at all will probably develop slowly. And I think what is important for friends and partners here in the Middle East to be assured of is that the United States will be very open and transparent about these contacts, and we will keep our friends informed of what is going on so that nobody gets surprised.
I think one of the areas where I think there has been some exaggerated concern has been some notion here in the region that there might be some grand bargain between the United States and Iran that would suddenly be sprung on them. And I would say that I believe that kind of prospect is very remote.
I think it’s highly unlikely, and we will just have to see how the Iranians respond to this offer from the President. Frankly, some of the first things that have happened subsequent to his extension of that open arm, open hand, have not been very encouraging in terms of statements coming out of Tehran.
We’re not willing to pull the hand back yet because we think there’s still some opportunity, but I think concerns out here of some kind of a grand bargain developed in secret are completely unrealistic, and I would say are not going to happen. And what is important for our friends to understand is that we will keep them informed and be transparent about this process.