US defence chief holds Iran talks in Oman

MUSCAT // The US defence secretary Robert Gates flew to Oman yesterday to hold talks with Sultan Qaboos about Iran's nuclear programme before heading to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast.

The talks were expected to cover international concern over Iran, the growing terror threat in Oman's neighbour, Yemen, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior US defence official told reporters.

The visit was mainly a courtesy call as Oman celebrates the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Oman, which has good relations with the United States and Iran, played a key role in brokering the release of one of three US hikers accused by the Tehran government of straying from Iraq into Iran's territory.

Muscat has been pressing for the release of the two remaining hikers, held since July last year.

The sultan has also appealed for a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran's uranium enrichment programme, which Washington believes is part of a clandestine attempt to build nuclear weapons.

The approach by the US president, Barack Obama, stresses diplomacy and "holding Iran's feet to the fire with sanctions", and Oman had a useful role to play on the issue, said the official, briefing reporters on Mr Gates's plane en route to Muscat.

"The sultan has been very proactive in pushing for a diplomatic solution and so that's helpful," said the official, who described Sultan Qaboos as "among the region's most erudite and insightful leaders".

The visit comes amid the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic memos on the WikiLeaks website, including cables that portray Arab leaders deeply threatened by Iran's nuclear ambitions and urging Washington to take military action.

The WikiLeaks documents could come up in the talks as US officials have sought to reassure allies around the world upset by the leaked files, which included embarrassing revelations and harsh assessments of an array of leaders.

The main purpose of Mr Gates's visit was to spend time on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, to get a first-hand look at operations in support of the war in Afghanistan, officials said.

"It will be the secretary's first visit to a deployed aircraft carrier since taking the job four years ago," the press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said.

Mr Gates planned to thank the ship's crew "for the difference they're making for the troops on the ground", he said.

The crew of the carrier and other naval ships in the area "are largely unseen and unheralded, but they are greatly appreciated by our troops fighting in Afghanistan, and by extension the American people at home".

Nearly 100,000 US forces on the ground in Afghanistan rely on fighter jets based on the carrier and elsewhere to carry out air strikes.

The defence official who briefed reporters on the plane said the secretary's trip to the carrier was not designed "to signal any particular message" to Iran.

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