The Path To War

From peaceful outreach to pledge of conflict. Inside Barack Obama's struggle to stop an Iranian nuke

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Pete Souza / The White House

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Secretary of defense Robert Gates had spent the last two years of George W. Bush's presidency cleaning up the mess of a poorly planned war in Iraq; he wasn't going to watch the U.S. stumble into a war in Iran unprepared. So in January 2010, he sent a secret three-page memo to the National Security Adviser, General Jim Jones, that would transform the Obama team's thinking and planning on Iran.

For the previous year, Obama had been delivering on his dovish campaign pledge to reach out to the regime in Tehran. He beamed in a conciliatory greeting to the entire country on the Persian New Year and had offered unconditional talks. In Cairo that June, he offered to let Iran keep a peaceful nuclear program. But Iran's leaders rebuffed Obama's efforts, and in the fall of 2009 the Obama Administration revealed that Iran was building a secret uranium-enrichment plant deep in a hillside outside the holy city of Qum.

Shortly thereafter, Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, threatened to attack Iran. In private to the Pentagon and the White House, Barak argued even more "aggressively that Israel had to strike," says a former senior Administration official. Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had threatened Israel; allowing him to get the means to destroy it was unacceptable, Barak and other Israeli leaders argued. Late in the year, the Obama Administration began increasing threats of military force and economic sanctions. At the same time, mysterious cyberattacks began damaging the Iranian nuclear facilities.

But Gates, who had worked for every President since Jimmy Carter, was nearly as alarmed by Washington's lack of readiness as by the bluster coming from Jerusalem and Tehran. He thought the Obama Administration had not sufficiently planned for a war against Iran and worried that Israel was drawing the U.S. into one unprepared. In his secret memo to Jones, the detailed contents of which have not previously been reported, Gates asked hard questions: Was the U.S. goal to keep Iran from getting a weapon or to prevent it from having the capability to get a weapon? What would an Israeli strike mean for the U.S., and how could the Administration keep Israel from acting? Was the U.S. ready not just to attack but also to defend itself and its allies in case of a war? Most controversial, Gates asked whether the U.S. might be willing to deter and contain Iran if it got a nuke, rather than launch a war to damage its program.

No one at the White House had ready answers to Gates' questions. But the memo quickly became the table of contents for the Administration's Iran strategy. Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon set up working groups to plan for diplomacy, covert action, sanctions and military preparedness. Immediately, Obama's team split over whether a nuclear Iran could be contained or should be attacked.

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