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The Gates memo isn't a "wake-up call"

Gates' tempest in a teapot. (Wikimedia)

On Sunday, the New York Times published an article on a classified memo by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Iran policy. An anonymous official called it a "wake-up call," but I struggled to find anything controversial in it. Nor does the article suggest, as Senator John McCain and others have, that the U.S. is mishandling Iran.

Here is the crux of the memo:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document.

Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, came in the midst of an intensifying effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course.

First off, could anyone realistically have an effective "long-range" policy on Iran? Iran does not have the bomb yet. Estimates for acquiring a bomb range from 2-5 years, and 1 year for nuclear bomb fuel. So, the U.S. does not yet know what Iran's nuclear capability will look like.

The policy options seem to be what the U.S. has been trying since the Bush Administration: diplomacy and sanctions first, and a military option--I repeat, option--if those do not work. The obvious problem with the third is that there is no telling that it would work anyway, since Iran's nuclear facilities may well be hidden and could survive a strike. Admiral Mike Mullen also threw cold water on the idea at a forum at Columbia University on Sunday, "Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome..In an area that’s so unstable right now, we just don’t need more of that."

The Administration appears to be trying hard for new multilateral sanctions as well, by patching up relations with Russia, and appealing to China. The only kind of sanctions that could work would be ones with the Chinese and Russians, since they have more economic leverage than the U.S. The Administration has been pushing the "reset" button with Russia, dropping the most offensive parts of the missile defense shield, and signing a new START. With China, it is more complicated, but Gates has pushed Saudi Arabia to send more oil to China to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil.

The memo does have one correct point: the U.S. has no effective policy to deal with Iran lest it develop a "breakout" capability. That would mean that Iran would have all the parts for a nuclear weapon, but it would not assemble them. It would remain a signatory to the NPT. Of course, many commentators, including yours truly, have discussed this option, but President Obama has wisely remained strategically ambiguous about it.

The international nonproliferation regime has simply never dealt with a pariah state that had a "breakout" capacity. Japan has such a capability, but it is pretty much a model state on nonproliferation. North Korea, Pakistan, and India all detonated bombs in defiance of the nonproliferation regime.

There aren't a lot of great options on Iran policy in general. The question is deeply politicized because Iran poses a greater threat to Israel. Diplomacy has become less of a legitimate policy option since the June 12 elections. Sanctions take time, and may well not work. A military option may well cause more harm then good.

If there is anything to smile about, it is that Iran appears to be a few years away from a nuclear weapon. Even when President Ahmadinejad made his big announcement in February that Iran was a "nuclear state," the IAEA reported that only 164 out of over 8,000 centrifuges had been designated for uranium enrichment beyond fuel-grade.

Though it's true that statements after a leak often are an attempt to cover-up the leak, Secretary Gates statement seems right on the merits:

The memo was not intended as a 'wake up call' or received as such by the President's national security team. Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process. There should be no confusion by our allies and adversaries that the United States is properly and energetically focused on this question and prepared to act across a broad range of contingencies in support of our interests


Am I missing something on this memo? Questions? Comments? Email them to me at I'm on Twitter too.


  • Tish 5 years ago

    what is the difference for the US in dealing with a breakaway state vs a state which openly flaunts the treaty?

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