WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in its effort against Iran, the Bush administration has begun developing a containment strategy with the Islamic state's Persian Gulf neighbors that aims to spread sophisticated missile defense systems across the region and to interdict ships carrying nuclear technology to the country.
Although the primary goal is to keep Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, the defense effort also reflects the administration's planning for a day when Iran becomes a nuclear state and, officials fear, more aggressive in a region that provides oil exports to the world.
"Iran without nuclear arms is a threat.... With nuclear weapons it would become even more emboldened, in terms of moving forward with its aggressive designs," Robert Joseph, undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, said in an interview. "And that includes in the gulf, and many countries in the gulf are concerned about that."
Although Tehran insists that its uranium-enrichment program is aimed only at creating fuel for civilian use, gulf leaders are anxious about Iran's rising influence in the region and the possibility that it will develop nuclear weapons.
But they are also unwilling to appear provocative to Tehran, which is a major trading partner and an intermittent military threat.
U.S. officials will have to overcome that nervousness before they can persuade the nations to sign on to their full package of proposals, gulf officials and experts on the region say.
"They don't want to antagonize, so there is a degree to which they are conflicted," said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity.
However, he added, the gulf countries "as a whole are very receptive to the message."
U.S. officials say they see the initiative as a way to put additional pressure on Tehran while they press ahead with their primary diplomatic effort, which calls for the U.N. Security Council to take steps to halt Iran's enrichment program. The U.S. has so far failed to win enough support at the United Nations for sanctions.
Joseph rolled out the proposal during a trip last month to the gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
John Hillen, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, led a top-level U.S. delegation to the region last week for further discussions.
Hillen said the initiative was "really the first time in a while" the U.S. had been actively involved in trying to reshape a regional security system. The effort "could put pressure on Iran to behave responsibly," he said.
The United States has helped defend many of the gulf states since the 1970s and has large naval, air and intelligence operations in the area.
But officials say the joint defense efforts must be strengthened if they are to be effective in stemming the flow of nuclear technology to Iran and protecting neighboring nations.
U.S. officials want to help boost the gulf states' ability to monitor and control cargo on the high seas and goods transshipped from busy gulf ports. They want to help improve the countries' abilities to detect "front" companies for Iran, to use American-style export control regulations, and to identify and halt transactions that finance Iran's purchase of goods for its unconventional weapons programs.
The containment strategy aims to improve the countries' ability to protect oil facilities and other infrastructure and to train personnel in counter-terrorism and in handling attacks involving unconventional weapons.
The Bush administration is also eager to see wider use of sophisticated defenses against aircraft and missiles. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have Patriot antimissile batteries, but U.S. officials say other countries need them as well, especially in light of Iran's advanced ballistic missile program.
U.S. officials declined to provide specifics of their approach on missile defense for the region. It is unclear whether the U.S. would provide the military hardware or sell it to the nations.
Many of the region's countries have been apprehensive that Washington would soon pressure them to provide bases or other help to enable U.S. forces to attack Iran. U.S. officials insist that this effort is exclusively about defense.
The program is "defensive, defensive, defensive," Hillen said.
U.S. officials say one of the greatest dangers if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon is that it could give Tehran new confidence to act against its neighbors.
The senior State Department official said the Shiite-led country might mount terrorist attacks or try to destabilize gulf countries by appealing to their sympathetic Shiite minorities.
The Iranians have warned of their ability to halt oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage between Oman and Iran through which much of the world's oil cargo passes.