MANAMA, Bahrain Pentagon chief Robert Gates lashed out at Iran on Saturday for seeking to cause chaos "everywhere you turn" regardless of the blood spilled and said its neighbors must demand that Tehran renounce any intention of pursuing nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the defense secretary endorsed the idea of setting up an independent consortium that, under controlled circumstances, would give countries access to uranium enrichment for civil or development purposes. That process can produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or a weapon.
"We ought to be thinking creatively about how the international community could provide such a thing," Gates said at a global security conference marked by the abrupt pullout of Iranian officials.
In his speech, Gates appealed to Persian Gulf nations to support penalties designed to force Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment. Those nations, he said, also should demand that Iran "openly affirm that it does not intend to develop nuclear weapons in the future."
Iran says its program is aimed at using nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Tehran has rebuffed U.S. demands that it cease enrichment, saying it has a right to do so under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Speaking to a divided group of national leaders and security officials, Gates said Gulf countries must pressure Iran to come clean about its nuclear activities. He said Iran delivers arms to terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to develop long-range missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction, and supports Hezbollah, Hamas and other militant organizations.
Members of the audience challenged his rebukes of Tehran, evidence of the divide among Arab nations over the Bush administration's tough stance. Asked if the U.S. would be willing to talk with Iran, Gates said the behavior of Iran's current leadership "has not given one confidence that a dialogue would be productive."
"Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents Christians, Jews and Muslims alike," Gates said in his address at the event organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing," he said.
A U.S. intelligence estimate released this past week concluded that Iran actually had stopped atomic weapons development in 2003. That was in stark contrast to a 2005 estimate that said Tehran was continuing its weapons development.
The principal deputy director of national intelligence for the U.S. released an unsolicited statement Saturday defending the latest assessment. "The task of the intelligence community is to produce objective, ground truth analysis. We feel confident in our tradecraft and resulting analysis in this estimate," Donald M. Kerr said.
Iran's president hailed the new finding as a "declaration of victory" for his country. President Bush said last week the latest conclusion would not lead him to discard the possibility of pre-emptive military action against Iran. Nor, he said, would the United States change its policy of trying to isolate Iran diplomatically and seek to impose penalties.
"Look, Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he said after the estimate was released. In October, he had said people "interested in avoiding World War III" should help work to prevent Iran from gaining such information.
His administration has acknowledged that the report may make it harder to build international support to persuade Iran to give up its enrichment program. Gates said in Bahrain the analysis "has annoyed a number of our good friends, it has confused a lot of people around the world in terms of what we are trying to accomplish."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday in Belgium that the U.S. would not relent in pushing for new penalties against Iran, a position endorsed by NATO and other European allies. Russia ignored such talk.
At the security conference, Gates urged Gulf states to back steps that would force Iran to suspend enrichment and to demand that Iran "openly affirm that it does not intend to develop nuclear weapons in the future."
In a complex region where partnerships do not come easy, Gates said the countries need to pull together and develop regional air and missile defense systems. He also said Gulf nations should cast aside their sectarian differences and support the struggling new government in Iraq.
"The progress is real. But it is also fragile," he said. "The Iraqi government must use this breathing space bought with the blood of American, Coalition and Iraqi troops to pass critical legislation."
Gates ended his speech with a grim warning against underestimating the United States.
Some countries, he said, "may believe our resolve has been corroded by the challenges we face at home and abroad. This would be a grave misconception."
Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Fascist Italy and the former Soviet Union all made that miscalculation, Gates said. "All paid the price. All are on the ash heap of history."