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Another Reading of Gates' Iran Memo

Robert Gates
In this Jan. 20 file photo, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates listens to a question during a press conference in New Delhi, India. AP Photo/Kevin Frayer

The immediate reaction to a leaked Robert Gates memo on Iran followed the usual lef-right lines with liberals arguing that there is nothing the U.S. can do to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and right-wingers slamming the White House as ineffectual and guilty of endangering U.S. national security.

However, the New York Times report of the contents of the memo also suggests that the U.S. Secretary of Defense is not fully convinced that Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, he appears to believe that Tehran is more interested in acquiring the capability to go nuclear as a deterrent against a future land invasion. That nuance has been overlooked in the cacophony. According to the Times' piece, Gates laid out several concerns:

...including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon - fuel, designs and detonators - but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.

In that case, Iran could still remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a "virtual" nuclear weapons state."

Hawks don't buy that argument and believe that time is running out. (John Bolton's Feb. piece in the Wall Street Journal is representative of this line of thinking.). Are the Iranians lying? The country's 's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has been saying for years that nuclear bombs are un-Islamic. He issued a fatwa to that effect in 2005. and repeated the theme on Saturday, when he told a nuclear conference in Tehran that nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction were "haram (religiously forbidden.

In Washington, the bureaucratic politics involved in formulating a policy response continue. So far, there's no unanimity about the effectiveness of the military option, according to the Times' piece:

Mr. Gates's memo appears to reflect concerns in the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed. Separately, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a "chairman's guidance" to his staff in December conveying a sense of urgency about contingency planning. <i>He cautioned that a military attack would have "limited results,</i>" but he did not convey any warnings about policy shortcomings (emphasis added).

Where does that leave the U.S.? As Tufts' professor Daniel Drezner noted, "all policy options on Iran stink" and Gates isn't thrilled with any the alternatives that his underlings have come up with.