ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that Persian Gulf allies understand sanctions are the inevitable next step in dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran.
He predicted economic sanctions will work because of broad international consensus that Iran is out of bounds.
“I think everybody in the region is concerned,” Gates said following two days of talks in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iran was the constant topic.
Gates said leaders in both countries seemed reassured when he described the U.S.-backed plan to target Iranian leadership and the powerful military-industrial Revolutionary Guards Corps, while sparing ordinary Iranians as much as possible.
He acknowledged the security umbrella being erected over the Gulf countries in reaction to Iran’s uncertain intentions and fast nuclear development.
“We have been developing a stronger security relationship with most of the countries in the Gulf now for several years, in terms of air and missile defenses and maritime surveillance,” Gates told reporters in the capital.
The Saudis, who have been skeptical that sanctions could work, are on board for a fourth round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran, Gates said.
“I think there is an understanding that we have to do this, that this is the next step,” Gates said.
Economic penalties can work if they are targeted correctly and supported across the board in the manner of sanctions applied to apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, Gates said.
A frequent criticism of sanctions is that they are a blunt and ineffective instrument against governments, often punishing the governed while sparing the governors.
“In places where they have worked … it was because of very broad international support, and there were very few cheaters,” Gates said.
The United States and its Western allies have been pushing for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, especially because it refuses to freeze its uranium enrichment program and due to belated revelations that it was building a secret, fortified plant.
The United Arab Emirates, home to the world’s fifth largest reserves of conventional crude oil, sit just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, a trading partner but also an object of growing unease.
Gates spoke at Abu Dhabi’s trophy hotel, the Emirates Palace, by some counts the most expensive ever built. Iran is a background presence, with an expensive Persian restaurant next door to the room where Gates spoke. Down the hallway was a shop selling exquisite Iranian rugs of the sort unavailable in the United States for the three decades of diplomatic breach.
The Arab Gulf states have generally chosen cordial accommodation with Iran even as they fear a nuclear and ballistic missile threat for self-protection. They also fear simmering Sunni-Shiite tension most recently on display in Iraq, and a “Shiite crescent” linking Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
The United States military maintains a low profile in the Emirates, which has played host to U.S. warplanes for years and where Dubai’s Jebel Ali port is a popular port of call for Navy sailors.
The UAE is one of four Gulf countries that host U.S. Patriot missile batteries, U.S. military officials said on condition of anonymity because some aspects of the defensive strategy are classified.
The Patriot missile systems, which originally were deployed in the region to shoot down aircraft, have now been upgraded to hit missiles in flight. They are part of U.S. efforts to reassure Gulf allies unsettled by Iran. The United States is also deploying more U.S. Navy ships capable of destroying missiles in flight.
Iran has missiles with ranges of more than 1,250 miles, capable of striking Israel or U.S. bases in the region. Iranian missiles could also hit near neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, although Iran denies any such intent.