ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT – Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was convinced Bahrain’s ruling family was ready to take more than “baby steps” toward reforms, but the opposition movement’s slow response to enter negotiations is allowing more time for Iranian influence to foment.

“There is clear evidence that as the process is protracted – particularly in Bahrain – that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems,” he said.

Gates met with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who commands the armed forces, for roughly two hours in Manama on Saturday.

“I’m convinced that they both are serious about real reform and about moving forward,” he said. “I think the concern now is that they have somebody to talk to.”

U.S. officials for weeks have praised Bahrain as a model for other Middle East regimes to follow, allowing nonviolent demonstrations to continue while negotiating real reform with protesters. But disorganized protesters have been unable to agree with official, more moderate opposition parties on how to move forward.

“I think what the government needs is for everybody to take a deep breath and provide a little space for this dialogue to go forward,” Gates said.

The government is now “between a rock and hard place,” he said, with a large Sunni population and Bahrain’s neighbors watching closely.

A senior defense official said Iran is encouraging the most hard-lined elements not to participate in the reform negotiations process. Their meddling “runs the gamut” from political propaganda to financial and social influence through Shiite religious networks, the official said. Gates said the U.S. had no evidence suggesting Iran helped incite any popular revolutions across the region.

In his meetings, Gates praised the long U.S.-Bahrain relationship, which he said was not threatened by the internal turmoil, but told the king and crown prince the reform movements across the region could not end with a return to status quo.

“It could be led or it could be imposed,” Gates said.

Prince Salman, at his meeting with Gates, called for the opposition to come together to the negotiating table without preconditions.

“At the end of the day we all are going to have to live in the same country together and talk to one another,” he said.

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