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U.S. ships headed to Mideast called a warning to Iran

From the Associated Press

A second U.S. aircraft carrier group steaming toward the Middle East is Washington’s way of warning Iran to back down in its attempts to dominate the region, a top U.S. diplomat said Tuesday.

R. Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of State for political affairs, ruled out direct negotiations with Tehran and said rapprochement was “not possible” until Iran halted its uranium enrichment program.

“The Middle East isn’t a region to be dominated by Iran,” Burns said in an address to the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, a think tank. “The [Persian] Gulf isn’t a body of water to be controlled by Iran. That’s why we’ve seen the United States station two carrier battle groups in the region.”

Iran is in a standoff with the West over its defiance of United Nations demands to halt uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for nuclear energy or for nuclear weapons.

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Iran says its atomic program is aimed solely at generating energy, but the U.S. and some of its allies suspect it is geared toward weapons. The U.N. imposed limited sanctions on Iran last month.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday accused the U.S. of stirring up conflict between rival Muslim sects.

“The U.S. intends to cause insecurity and dispute and weaken independent governments in the region to continue with its dominance over the Middle East,” Ahmadinejad said during a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

In an interview with state-run television in Iran, Ahmadinejad spoke with confidence about his nation’s ability to withstand a possible strike.

“The United States is unable to inflict serious damage on Iran,” Ahmadinejad said. He also said his goals were peaceful. “Iran is not seeking confrontation with anybody,” he said.

The aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and accompanying ships are headed toward the Persian Gulf to join the carrier group already in the region, the Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Stennis is expected to arrive in late February.

Some members of the audience in Dubai complained that American wars in the Middle East were threatening the region’s stability and asked Burns and the U.S. to sort out Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict before focusing on Iran.

“What we are not interested in is another war in the region,” Mohammed Naqbi, who heads the Gulf Negotiations Center, told Burns. “Iraq is your problem, not the problem of the Arabs. You destroyed a country that had institutions. You handed that country to Iran. Now you are crying to Europe and the Arabs to help you out of this mess.”

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