WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip to the Persian Gulf is intended to strengthen ties with Arab allies, rally support for penalties against Iran, and promote democracy and security across the Middle East.
Clinton was to depart Washington late Saturday for the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, where leaders are concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions and growing influence in the region.
America's chief diplomat also will seek greater cooperation in enforcing international sanctions on Iran that are designed to make Iran prove that it's not trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Many Arab nations share U.S. fears that Iran is using a civilian atomic energy program to hide weapons development. Those concerns were amplified in leaked diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website late last year that revealed deep mistrust of Iran by Sunni Arab leaders who must deal with an increasing emboldened Shiite neighbor.
Clinton's trip comes ahead of a new round of international talks with Iran, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 21-22 in Turkey. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — along with Germany will again try to compel Iranian to comply with demands to come clean about its nuclear intentions, in return for incentives.
Iran is under four sets of U.N. sanctions because of its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, which can be used to produce nuclear fuel or materials for bombs. U.S. officials believe the penalties are hitting Iran's economy, but want them to be more strictly enforced and would like individual countries to take separate punitive measures on their own.
Tehran insists its uranium enrichment and other programs are meant only for peaceful purposes to generate fuel for a future network of nuclear reactors.
Clinton's trip to the Gulf will be her second in as many months. She also attended an international security conference in Bahrain in December. While Iran is always high on the agenda during such visits to the region, her focus this time will be broader.
In her meetings with leaders in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Muscat and Doha, U.S. officials say Clinton will look for more Arab backing for the new government in Iraq and more financial support for the Palestinian Authority.
Some Arab states have yet to fulfill pledges to fully normalize relations with Iraq and open embassies in Baghdad, gestures of support that Washington wants to see as it winds down its military presence there.
As the Obama administration struggles to get the Mideast peace process back on track, Clinton will push wealthy Arab powers to broaden their contributions to the Palestinians. The U.S. is keen to keep the development of Palestinian governmental institutions moving ahead.
Official hope such progress may help forestall Palestinian moves to declare statehood or seek U.N. action against Israel.
Clinton's visit also comes amid spikes of civil unrest in Arab states such as Tunisia and Algeria and deep alarm at the conduct of Egypt's recent elections.
In town hall events at most stops and at a regional conference in Qatar on Thursday, Clinton will promote democratic, economic and social change as ways to reduce tensions and blunt the threat from Islamic extremism, particularly among Arab youth.