JEDDAH (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday urged Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours to unite in confronting common threats such as Iran, even as the Arab states struggle to overcome divisions over Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
"The most pressing security challenges threaten this region as a whole – and they demand a collective response," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during opening remarks of a meeting of defence ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
"This approach is how the region must continue to address the threats posed by Iran," he said.
He arrived in Jeddah on Tuesday and met senior Saudi officials including Crown Prince Salman and deputy defence minister Prince Salman bin Sultan.
Most of the GCC's six members - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman - are wary of Iranian influence in the Middle East, but their responses vary from barely concealed hostility to diplomatic engagement.
However, efforts led by Saudi Arabia, Iran's biggest regional rival, to forge a united front against Tehran have been complicated by an unprecedented rift within the GCC over Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the feud prompted Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar in early March, Gulf countries, encouraged by Washington, appear to be seeking to repair ties, and in April agreed on ways to implement a security agreement.
On Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Price Saud al-Faisal said Riyadh had invited Iran's foreign minister to visit, hinting at a possible thaw between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, which are at odds over the conflict in Syria and other issues.
Saudi officials, like Western powers, suspect Iran is working to develop atomic bomb capability, which Tehran denies.
According to Iran's state news agency, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Tehran had not received a written invitation from Saudi Arabia but that a visit between the two nations' foreign ministers was on Iran's agenda.
The U.S.-Gulf meeting takes place as negotiators from Iran and six world powers, including the United States, sit down for talks aimed at reaching a final accord by July to settle the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Hagel said heightened military cooperation could help Gulf states confront not only Iran but militancy and other challenges, suggesting several modest steps to bolster maritime, air and digital defence, such as establishing a joint U.S.-GCC cyber defence initiative.
The Obama administration has also been seeking to reassure Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries concerned by U.S. overtures to Iran.
"While our strong preference is for a diplomatic solution, the United States will remain postured and prepared to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon – and that Iran abides by the terms of any potential agreement," Hagel said.
Reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Angus McDowall and Alison Williams