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Sat 13 Dec 2008 02:05 PM

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Gates warns US adversaries not to test Obama

Defence secretary says adversaries would be 'sorely mistaken', calls for pressure on Iran.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned on Saturday that US adversaries would be "sorely mistaken" to test Barack Obama in the Gulf and called for regional pressure to change Iran's behaviour.

"Anyone who thought that the upcoming months might present opportunities to 'test' the new administration would be sorely mistaken," he said at an international security conference in Bahrain.

"The president-elect and his team, myself included, will be ready to defend the interests of the United States, and our friends and allies, the moment he takes office on January 20," he said.

Gates said a change of behaviour, rather than a regime change, was sought from Tehran.

"Nobody is after a regime change in Iran," he said.

"What we are after is a change in policies and a change in behaviour so that Iran becomes a good neighbour of people in the region [rather] than a source of instability and violence."

He said it "remains to be seen" whether the incoming Obama administration will broaden the conditions for direct diplomacy with Iran.

"But one thing I think I can say with some confidence is that the president-elect Obama is under no illusions about Iran's behaviour and what Iran has been doing in the region and is doing in terms of its own weapons programmes," he said.

"I think we all need to work together to see if we can bring economic and diplomatic pressure to bring about a change in Iran's behaviour," he said during a question and answer session.

"If we say that we want to try to change Iranian behaviour and want to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons and we want to avoid conflict, then the way to get them to change there behaviour is to use every tool at our disposal to bring economic and political pressure on them," he added.

Gates said the oil-rich region will remain a central US concern, and that as Obama's pick to stay on at the Pentagon he has worked hard to assure that the transition of power goes smoothly.

"I bring from president-elect Obama a message of continuity and commitment to our friends and partners in the region," he said in a speech to the Manama Dialogue.

Gates's speech comes as the United States is shifting its priorities from Iraq to Afghanistan.

During a brief visit to Afghanistan on Thursday, he promised commanders more troops and resources as the United States draws down its 146,000-strong force from Iraq by the end of 2011.

But he signalled in Manama that he remains concern about Iraq's long-term stability and Iran's attempts to influence the government in Baghdad.

Gates said a new agreement governing the US military presence in Iraq through the end of 2011 marks "the dawn of a new era in Iraq - where a sovereign, independent and representative government has finally taken root".

Whether Iraq plays a constructive role in the region depends in part on whether Arab states act to support its government, treating it as an equal and inviting it to take part in regional economic and political forums, Gates said.

"There is no doubt that Iran has been heavily engaged in trying to influence the development and direction of the Iraqi government - and has not been a good neighbour," he said.

He renewed charges that Iran has been training and supplying armed militant groups intent on undermining the government.

He said Iran tested long-range missiles this year that can hit any country in the Middle East, and has "almost assuredly" geared its nuclear programme to develop nuclear weapons.

Arab states should back financial sanctions called for by the United Nations and "could be even more influential... by welcoming the new Iraq into the Arab fold", he said.

"For other Arabs to withhold support and friendship because of the composition of Iraq's government, or because of past aggressions by a defunct government, would be to increase the risk of the very outcome many in the region fear," he said.

"Iraq wants to be your partner. And given the challenges in the Gulf, the reality of Iran, you should wish to be theirs."

Gates praised the Gulf states for making "significant progress in air and missile defence throughout the Middle East".

He said all six member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have expressed interest in or are in the process of acquiring active missile defenses and shared early warning on air or missile attacks.

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