US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was the speaker, and his talk covered three points: Iraq, Iran, and security cooperation in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The first and third of these topics did not delve into anything new or particularly interesting. Regarding Iraq, Gates noted the impact of the surge as well as economic progress, but remarked that political progress was still needed to cement the recent gains. He also emphasized what failure in Iraq would mean for the region. With regards to security cooperation, Gates commented on a Bilateral Air Defense Initiative, which he hoped would:
become a stepping stone to a multilateral effort to develop regional air and missile defense systems that would provide more comprehensive coverage, a regional protective – defensive – umbrella. We should bear in mind the deterrent effect such a system would have. If the chances of a successful attack are greatly reduced, then so too is the value of pursuing offensive weapons systems and delivery systems.Most of the talk concerned Iran, and, in particular, the impact of the recently released NIE. According to Gates:
The report expresses with greater confidence than ever that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program – developed secretly, kept hidden for years, and in violation of its international obligations. It reports that they do continue their nuclear enrichment program, an essential long lead time component of any nuclear weapons program. It states that they do have the mechanisms still in place to restart their program. And, the estimate is explicit that Iran is keeping its options open and could restart its nuclear weapons program at any time – I would add, if it has not done so already. Although the Estimate does not say so, there are no impediments to Iran restarting its nuclear weapons program – none, that is, but the international community.Gates went on to describe how the US views the threat posed by Iran:
It is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or the cost in the blood of innocents – Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing.This makes it clear that the US does not plan to ease up on Iran, even in face of the NIE assessment that Iran has suspended development of nuclear weapons. Interestingly, Gates did not recommend any real engagement with Iran, preferring to speak instead of pressure and sanctions:Considering all this, the international community should demand that the Iranian government come clean about the extent of its past illegal nuclear weapons development. The international community should insist that Iran suspend enrichment. The international community should require that the Iranian government openly affirm that it does not intend to develop nuclear weapons in the future and, further, that it agree to inspection arrangements that will give us all confidence that it is adhering to that commitment.
While we must keep all our options open, the United States and the international community must continue – and intensify – our economic, financial, and diplomatic pressures on Iran to suspend enrichment and to agree to verifiable arrangements that can prevent that country from resuming its nuclear weapons program at a moment’s notice – at the whim of its most militant leaders. That should be a matter of grave concern to every government in the world. Let us continue to work together to take the necessary peaceful but effective measures necessary to bring a long-term change of policies in Tehran.I just finished reading Hidden Iran by Ray Takeyh, in which he makes a convincing case for open negotiations with Iran, rather than threatening sanctions and punishment. He also argues for delinking the various issues of concerns so if negotiations over Iran's support for terrorism collapse, talks about Iran's nuclear program shouldn't be affected. Gates here makes no mention of such an approach, preferring instead to focus on "economic, financial, and diplomatic pressure." The NIE does credit Iran's suspension of the weapons program to such pressure, but if that pressure only produced a public change of behavior, it's not so clear that the strategy is working. US policy towards Iran since 1979 has focused on pressure and hasn't paid many dividends. Takeyh argues that the US and Iran have many common interests and that a new strategic course could pay benefits. So long as the international community remains watchful and doesn't cede too much too fast, a new approach seems worth trying.
The Q&A following Gates' speech focused primarily on Iran. In response to one question, Gates spoke about how the NIE was received:
The bottom line is that the estimate clearly has come at an awkward time. It has annoyed a number of our good friends. It has confused a lot of people around the world in terms of what we are trying to accomplish. But, the reality is that if you take the time to read the unclassified key judgments of that estimate, it points to the nature of the problem posed to all of us by the Iranians’ continuing enrichment, by the fact that they had a secret programme, which they did not suspend until put under international pressure. It is a fair question. I would tell you that the timing and the content were not determined by the President, by Secretary Rice or by me, but by the Director of National Intelligence. I think that we need to get past the give and take about how it happened and focus on the entirety of the estimate, and the key judgments that have been released and the continuing challenge that we face by Iran’s enrichment and their ability to return to a nuclear weapons programme at any time they choose. This is why I said in my remarks that it is so important to continue the economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran to make them first of all come clean, then to suspend, then to agree to arrangements for inspection that give the rest of us confidence that they are not, in fact, trying to produce a nuclear weapon.Another question specifically asked whether the NIE was likely to undermine international efforts to curtail Iran's WMD program: "Given the reluctance of at least two members of the Security Council to exert ultimate pressure, is the dominant sound after the release of the national intelligence estimate not one of slamming doors and bolting horses, and has the likelihood of that international pressure of unanimity as far as international pressure not been totally destroyed?"
A very interesting question was asked about US policy towards Iran:I do not think it has been destroyed. One of the things that became clear to me when I was in Russia with Secretary Rice just a few weeks ago is that the Russians consider Iran to be a serious security challenge for them. In my conversations with the Chinese leaders, we had a very frank discussion about their interest in long-term energy security and particularly their reliance on oil and gas coming from this part of the world, which is not well served by an Iran that is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy, attempting to subvert its neighbours and potentially seeking nuclear weapons. Their long-term interests for obtaining security from this region are best served by working with the rest of the international community to try to get Tehran to change its policies.I think that the statements that have come out of both Paris and Berlin, as well as London, in recent days makes clear a continued determination to not only continue to seek UN Security Council resolution but unilaterally apply sanctions that bring economic pressure to bear on the government in Tehran. My view is that even if there is not a UN Security Council resolution, a third resolution, that there are ample opportunities on the part of individual countries in this region, in Europe and elsewhere to take actions which bring further economic pressure to bear on Tehran as a means to trying to induce them to change their policies. Frankly, I do not see it change in either the perception of Iran as a disruptive influence in international affairs or the determination to try to work together using diplomatic and economic means to get them to change their policies.
I wondered if you could allow – or agree – to the Gulf States engaging Iran economically. In this manner, they will be able to involve them within the world creation in this region. If they have financial interest within the region, they will add stability to the region we live in. Would the United States consent to such policy? Perhaps this would moderate Iran, as you have done with North Korea.Gates' answer:
Many of the questions exhibited a serious fear of Iran, as well as concern that the US would do whatever is deemed to be in US interests without regard for the rest of the region:This is the classic question: do you best produce results in dealing with a recalcitrant and truculent government through the application of carrots or sticks? The reality is that a number of countries, over the past 29 years, have engaged economically with Iran. There are many companies that do business in Iran; many countries that do business in Iran; that have hosted Iranian banks. There have been significant economic ties and I see no evidence that any of that has exercised any kind of a moderating influence on Iranian behaviour whatsoever.It seems to me that if Iran were to begin to show some sign of movement, some willingness to engage the international community on the issues that concern us, then perhaps at some point there is a place where carrots and positive inducements could play a role. However, I have seen no evidence that the activities that have taken place so far have had any effect in moving them in toward that objective.
Why would the Arab public opinion trust you again now that you are handling a very sensitive file, the file of Iran? There is a tremendous amount of fear that you could either end up doing a reckless thing such as a military strike that could set the whole region ablaze again, or you could actually sign a deal with Iran that would be at the expense of Arab interests, and ultimately America will end up doing what it has always done: embarrass its friends, let them down, let its allies down, and sign a deal that caters to its own interests while being detrimental to Arab interests in the region.Gates:
What is most interesting is the level of concern from the region about Iran. Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon has very much unsettled the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Iran, as a revolutionary Shiite power, is viewed with much suspicion, which has given the US an opportunity to improve relations with many other regional actors. While Iraq and US policy towards Israel is cause for hesitation, many of these states realize that only the US can protect them from an aggressive Iran rising in power.I have been engaged in this region, in one way or another, for nearly 40 years. I do not have enough fingers and toes to count the times when the United States has helped its friends and allies in this region. Perhaps the most signal example of that was liberating Kuwait from the Iraqi invader. We have been the primary sponsor of virtually every peace agreement and ceasefire that has been signed in this region for the last 35 years. We have exercised a constructive influence in trying to promote positive change. I therefore do not accept the premise of the question that we have exercised negative influence.I know that there are aspects of American policy with which people disagree. That has been true also for the last number of decades. I can only speak for myself, but I believe that, working with our friends and allies in this region is critically important. I believe it is extremely important that, in dealing with Iran, as I indicated in my speech, we keep options open. The focus now is on trying to get the Iranians to change their positions using economic and political measures.An interviewer from Al‑Arabiya yesterday asked me what the percentage of American policy is for military and for diplomacy in dealing with Iran at the moment. I said that it was 100% diplomatic and economic. I can assure you, on the other side of the equation that you suggested, that the United States is not going to cut any kind of a deal with Iran. Iran must change its policies and its behaviour towards its neighbours, and its own nuclear programme, before the United States is willing to pursue that relationship.It is very important for us to consult closely with our friends and allies in this region on all of the issues that we pursue. As I indicated in the answer to an earlier question, it is important that we listen. The government of which I am a part is firmly committed to that course.
It is also interesting to note how little US policy has changed over time. There is little to no talk of engaging Iran, either diplomatically, politically, or economically. The US approach is to use pressure to force Iran to compromise on important issues; Takeyh argues that this policy is flawed and fails to take account of Iran's domestic political situation (Takeyh argues that Iranian politics are much more complicated and fissured than most American analysts assume). Taking Gates at his word, there seems to be few signs that US policy towards Iran will change, leaving little hope of any major breakthroughs. Perhaps the US is hoping that success in Iraq and in Palestine will further marginalize Iran, isolating it to the point that Iran must yield to international and American demands. That seems to be putting a lot of eggs in a few fragile baskets.