On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrote a secret memo in January to the White House warning “that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability.”
“One senior official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the memo, described the document as “a wake-up call.” But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
… in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of 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 remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.
According to several officials, the memorandum also calls for new thinking about how the United States might contain Iran’s power if it decided to produce a weapon, and how to deal with the possibility that fuel or weapons could be obtained by one of the terrorist groups Iran has supported, which officials said they considered to be a less-likely possibility.”
In response, the Obama administration moved quickly to downplay the story. Through his press secretary, Gates said that the Times article “mischaracterized (the memo’s) purpose and content.”
As the Washington Post reports:
“The memo was not intended as a ‘wake up call’ or received as such by the President’s national security team,” Gates said. “Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process.”
The White House had also pushed back hard against the story when it was posted on the Times Web site Saturday night. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said: “It is absolutely false that any memo touched off a reassessment of our options. The administration has been planning for all contingencies regarding Iran for many months.”
Various other officials, while acknowledging privately that Gates has sent some sort of memo on Iran, declined to discuss its content but suggested it was not an earth-shattering moment in the administration’s Iran discussions.
In that memo, Gates was merely stating the obvious. It doesn’t require top-secret intel and access to briefings to know that our options with Iran are limited. Nor does it take a Phd in international affairs to conclude that throughout the Bush administration and now into the Obama administration, we’ve lacked an effective strategy.
The easy, knee-jerk response is of course to resort to force. It’s an option that many Republicans are willing to hint at but in most cases stop short of outright advocating. They want the credit for acting tough, but not the responsibility that comes with it.
The Pentagon strongly opposes the military option, just as it did during the Bush administration. The generals and admirals understand that attacking Iran’s nuclear complex would be an act of war that in turn might touch off a much larger and longer conflict involving Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Gulf states, with potentially devastating consequences for global oil supply.
Unless we’re fully willing to shoulder that burden, we should find a better way to address the problem.
A couple of other considerations also come into play. Given the secretive nature of Iran’s program and the steps it has taken to protect its nuclear complex from attack, experts predict that an attack would probably only delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions for three or four years. Just as critically, an attack by either the United States or Israel would rally the nationalistic Iranians around their government, throttling the resistance movement that offers our best hope for more responsible Iranian leadership.
None of that offers a clear, effective way forward of course. That’s probably because no such strategy exists. The world is like that sometimes.