ABU DHABI // Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, met senior UAE leaders and Arab foreign ministers in Abu Dhabi, just hours after sending a warning to Iran that it would face "punitive measures" if it failed to respond within a fortnight to calls to halt uranium enrichment. Ms Rice told reporters en route to the UAE that Iran had a deadline of two weeks to respond to incentives to halt its uranium enrichment operations. The package of incentives was proposed by the world's six most powerful countries - the US, France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China. "We expected to hear an answer from the Iranians but, as has been the case so many times with the Iranians, what came through was not serious," she said. "It's time for the Iranians to give a serious answer." She added: "If they do not decide to suspend then we will be in a situation where we have to return to the Security Council." Iran has already been the subject of three UN Security Council resolutions. More sanctions could be imposed by the US and the European Union as early as late August or September, she said.
"They can't go and stall and make small talk about culture, they have to make a decision," she said. "People are tired of the Iranians and their stalling tactics." Ms Rice was accompanied by William Burns, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, who briefed the ministers on his meeting on Saturday in Geneva with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Ms Rice met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Mr Burns also attended that meeting, during which they discussed the Geneva talks, the ongoing negotiations and the "situation in Iraq and Lebanon", the state news agency, WAM, reported. They also "reviewed efforts to reach a durable and comprehensive peace in the Middle East". Also present at the meeting was Yousef al Otaiba, the new UAE ambassador to Washington.
Ms Rice's visit came as signs of a shift in US policy in the Middle East intensified. The decision to send Mr Burns to the Geneva meeting with Iran's top nuclear negotiator resulted from an internal policy debate within the Bush administration that pitted pragmatists, led by Ms Rice and the US defence secretary, Bob Gates, against hardliners from the office of the vice president, Dick Cheney. A senior UAE official said the region's foreign ministers were keen to hear the latest developments on the negotiations with Iran: "Iran concerns the GCC countries. It's a close neighbour to them. They are 300 miles or less from Iran." US and Gulf officials said last night's meetings had no agenda or expected outcomes. But Ms Rice's visit is seen as an attempt to win the support of America's Arab allies for the introduction of more sanctions against Iran in the event that the Islamic republic fails to provide a convincing answer. The Gulf countries, however, have repeatedly expressed their support for diplomatic approaches. The Gulf official said Iraq's participation in the meeting followed the decision by several Arab countries, led by the UAE, to open embassies in the country. It was, he said, a further step towards "bringing Iraq in the regional fold". Ms Rice is fighting the perception that, with only six months left in office, the Bush administration can no longer deliver. The absence of US involvement in the Syrian-Israeli talks facilitated by Turkey, in the Lebanese deal that ended several years of political stalemate brokered by Qatar and in the discussions between the two Palestinian factions promoted by Egypt and Yemen, has fuelled criticism at home that the US has become a marginal player in the region. The secretary of state's visit is also aimed at alleviating concerns within the Sunni Arab world about a potential, if still unlikely, arrangement with Iran. Since initiating in 2006 an informal forum drawing together America's key Arab allies - characterised by some as a Sunni front against Iran - the US has tried to orchestrate a unified response to Iran's growing power in the region.
These efforts have been complicated by disagreements among Arab states about the nature of the Iranian problem and the strategy to counter the country's power. Concerns about US intentions and Arab fears of an escalation leading to war have also impeded any consensus on Iran.
Saudi Arabia has pursued a dual strategy of accommodation of Iran in its bilateral relations while working to reduce Iranian power in the region by confronting its allies. Other Arab states have focused on bringing Syria and Hamas back into the fold, thus weakening Iranian reach into the Arab world but directly contradicting America's policy of isolating both players. * Agencies