updated 5/4/2009 4:34:47 PM ET 2009-05-04T20:34:47

The top U.S. defense official cautioned Monday that the Obama administration's quest to bolster relations with Tehran most likely will be met at first by "a closed fist."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is on a delicate mission to soothe Mideast allies' concerns about American efforts to open diplomatic relations with Iran.

Gates arrived in Cairo on the first leg of a Mideast tour that will include Saudi Arabia. He said part of his mission this week will be to assure the Saudis, and other Mideast allies, that any U.S. gesture toward Tehran will be for the purpose of improving security throughout the region.

Building diplomacy with Iran "will not be at the expense of our long-term relationships with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states that have been our partners and friends for decades," Gates told reporters aboard a military jet headed to Cairo.

A second U.S. official said the U.S. is only "at first base" with Tehran and that diplomatic deals aimed at scaling back tensions over Iran's nuclear program were still premature. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue more candidly.

Another crucial issue for Gates on this trip will be negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo early Tuesday. Gates has credited Egypt for working as an intermediary between the two sides.

'Reach out' cautiously
On the U.S. feelers to Iran, Gates acknowledged that there are likely "concerns in the region that may draw on an exaggerated sense of what's possible. And I just think it's important to reassure our friends and allies in the region that while we're willing to reach out to the Iranians, as the president said, with an open hand, I think everybody in the administration, from the president on down, is pretty realistic and will be pretty tough-minded if we still encounter a closed fist."

Gates flies to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on Tuesday.

He also noted concerns throughout the Mideast about Iran's influence in Baghdad, and said they could be staved off if more Arab nations opened embassies or otherwise became more involved in Iraq.

Gates praised Egypt, for example, for having "taken some serious steps forward to re-engage."

Critics of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accuse him of forging ties with fellow Shiites who are allied with Iran. The issue has been a flashpoint for Iraq's Sunnis, who, under Saddam Hussein, fought Iran decades ago.

Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi urged Arab countries to increase their involvement in Iraq by reopening embassies, making official visits and increasing trade ties.

"Arab countries must read the new strategic scene in Iraq. They have to open up and extend bridges with Iraq," al-Hashemi told reporters following talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman.

Guantanamo on agenda
Gates said discussions in Riyadh would include U.S. efforts to have Yemeni detainees now being held at the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rehabilitated in Saudi facilities. An estimated 100 of the 241 Guantanamo detainees are Yemeni. The U.S. is reluctant to release them to Yemen, where convicted terrorists have escaped from prisons. But the Yemeni government has so far balked at agreeing to send the Yemeni detainees to Saudi Arabia.

Gates also welcomed any help Saudi officials could give to Pakistan's fragile government.

"The Saudis in particular have considerable influence in Pakistan," he said. "And so I think that whatever they can do to bring Pakistanis together in a broader sense to deal with the challenge to the government in Islamabad obviously would be welcome."

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