There's a rather interesting--and important--bureaucratic struggle, now being played at the highest levels of our national government. On one side is Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior leaders at the Pentagon; on the other is President Obama and his national security team at the White House. At stake: the future of U.S. policy towards Iran and our willingness to deter Tehran's nuclear ambitions, using all available options.
The struggle went public last Saturday, with The New York Times publishing details from a secret, three-page memo written by Dr. Gates in January. According to the Times, the Gates memorandum said the U.S. lacks "an effective, long-range strategy" for curbing Iran's progress towards developing nuclear weapons. One senior official, who is familiar with the memo, described it as a "wake-up call."
Not surprisingly, the White House disagreed with that characterization and by Sunday, Secretary Gates was in full "clarification mode." His memo was not a warning to the administration, he told reporters, but rather, it was a list of planning steps that will be required in the months ahead.
But that explanation doesn't really hold water. First, it's not the job of the SecDef to generate a list of planning milestones--that's a task generally handled by a mid-level staffer at the National Security Council or somewhere in the bowels of OSD. And secondly, Mr. Gates planning outline triggered a flurry of activity at the Pentagon and the nation's intelligence agencies, aimed at giving Mr. Obama new options for dealing with Iran. That would suggest something beyond the "normal" planning process, which has (supposedly) been underway for some time.
As the Times reported:
Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, touched off an intense effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a revised set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course…
Pressed on the administration’s ambiguous phrases until now about how close the United States was willing to allow Iran’s program to proceed, a senior administration official described last week in somewhat clearer terms that there was a line Iran would not be permitted to cross.
The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability,” a step Tehran could get to well before it developed a sophisticated weapon. “That includes the ability to have a breakout,” he said, using the term nuclear specialists apply to a country that suddenly renounces the nonproliferation treaty and uses its technology to build a small arsenal.
Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in the upper echelons of 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.
Specifically, the defense chief is reportedly worried that Iran could take all steps necessary to create a nuclear weapon, but stop short of final production assembly. That would give Tehran a "breakout" capability, allowing it to renounce any non-proliferation agreements and rapidly build a small nuclear arsenal. The bottom line on Mr. Gates's memo is strikingly clear: what do we do if (read: when) diplomacy fails? If the current planning "surge" in Washington is any indication, it would seem that no one could answer the SecDef's question as recently as three months ago.
The absence of "worst case" options should come as no surprise. The U.S. has been kicking the Iran "can" down the road since the Bush Administration, which out-sourced engagement on the issue to the Europeans. Years of talks between Iran and our surrogates (Germany, France and Great Britain) yielded nothing, except Tehran's continuing progress on nuclear weapons.
And, more recently, Mr. Obama gave Iran a year to come around, a gesture that was greeted with amazement and derision by the ruling clerics and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who couldn't believe their continued good fortune. While Washington fiddled, Iranian scientists and technicians kept working towards their goal.
Now, U.S. experts say Tehran may be only a year away from producing its first nuclear weapon, and could build a "deployable" device by 2013. Not bad for a program that was "suspended" for several years, according to that infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. Of course, that warhead would be quite useful on an Iranian missile with the range to strike the CONUS. Coincidentally, U.S. intelligence officials now say Tehran may have such a weapon by the middle of this decade.
None of these developments should surprise readers of this blog, which was long documented Tehran's efforts to gain nuclear weapons--and the means to deliver them. It's also unsurprising that some in the administration seemed willing to ignore the tough policy choices that may be required in dealing with Iran. After all, this is an administration that puts diplomacy ahead of all other options, and prefers to avoid the discussion of military force, let alone its potential use.
Borrowing a phrase from a former Obama advisor, it would seem that our Iranian planning chickens have come home to roost. Years of inactivity, over the course of multiple administrations, have allowed Tehran to reach the cusp of the nuclear club. Now, the U.S. must face potential options that many senior officials clear find unpalatable. If nothing else, Dr. Gates succeeded in reminding his peers that it is (often) their job to think--and plan for--the unthinkable.
ADDENDUM: We also find it remarkable that the SecDef was willing to take his fight into the public arena. As a veteran of at least five administrations, Bob Gates clearly knows how the game is played, and is capable of using a timely leak to his advantage. But such steps are relatively rare for Dr. Gates, who has a long-standing reputation as a team player. Last weekend's article in the Times suggests that relations between Secretary Gates and the White House are beginning to fray. Mr. Obama's national security advisor, James Jones, claims the administration has been planning for a full range of possible "contingencies" involving Iran. The Gates memo seems to counter that claim, as does the sudden search for "new" Iranian options.