U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday downplayed Iran's influence on Afghanistan, but the war of words escalated, with Iran's president promising that the region's people would "cut your hands off of the Persian Gulf oil."
Visiting a military base that houses an air refueling wing serving Afghanistan, Gates said Iranian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is "pretty limited" — so far.
Gates noted his public exchange of barbs with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week over which country is doing harm in Afghanistan. He had accused Tehran of undermining U.S. and NATO efforts by helping the Taliban.
"I have talked about Iran playing a double game in Afghanistan, wanting a good relationship with the Afghan government and wanting to make our lives harder," he said.
"At this point the level of their effort I think is not a major problem for us," Gates said. "The level of their support for the Taliban, so far as best we can tell, has been pretty limited. I was just trying to express the hope that it wouldn't get any worse."
The Pentagon asked press traveling with Gates not to name the military base.
In Riyadh on Wednesday, Gates asked Saudi leaders for help winning wide backing for strong economic penalties against Tehran.
Ahmadinejad responded Thursday, saying, "The Iranian nation will not allow the world power (the U.S.) to corrupt and create chaos in the Persian Gulf."
"You are wrong if you think that you will be able to dominate the oil of Iraq and the Persian Gulf through deploying military forces," Ahmadinejad said. "The young people of the region will cut your hands off of the Persian Gulf oil."
"Pakistanis, Afghans, the Persian Gulf states should be watchful," Ahmadinejad told a crowd at the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. "They do not serve anybody."
On Thursday, making the last stop of a weeklong trip to Afghanistan and the Middle East, Gates was sitting down with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, although flashy Dubai is better known in the West.
First, Gates toured an Abu Dhabi mosque that is the third largest in the world. The sprawling white building was built with the vast oil wealth of the United Arab Emirates.
The U.S. defense chief usually skips tourist attractions when he travels, but his visit to the Sheik Zayed mausoleum and mosque was meant as a gesture of respect to one of the United States' most steadfast friends in the Arab world.
"For many years the United States and the United Arab Emirates have been close partners," Gates said outside the mosque. His meetings Thursday are part of "the deep and long-standing friendship between our two nations," he said.
UAE is also friendly with Iran, although the Shiite state's rising influence and expanded ballistic missile capability are a source of growing unease. The Emirates sit just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, and they have vast trade with Tehran even as the predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East — and Persian Gulf nations in particular — are wary of the rising influence of the Shiite republic.
Arab states warn of the potential for a nuclear arms race in the Gulf region if Iran develops a bomb, and see Iran's expanding missile capability as an even more immediate threat.
The United Arab Emirates is one of four Gulf countries that host U.S. Patriot missile batteries, U.S. military officials said on condition of anonymity because some aspects of the defensive strategy are classified.
The Patriot missile systems, which originally were deployed in the region to shoot down aircraft, have now been upgraded to hit missiles in flight, such as those that Iran might one day fire.