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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"There was a debate within the Administration over prevention vs. containment," says Dennis Ross, Obama's top Middle East adviser at the time. Those in favor of planning for containment, led by Gates, argued that another conflict in the region would hurt the U.S., according to senior officials who participated in the discussions. The U.S. had lived with nuclear adversaries before, this side argued, and its vastly superior nuclear force could deter Iran from using its nuclear weapons. Most of all, an attack would set Iran back only a few years, strengthen support for the mullahs' regime at home and fracture international opposition to it abroad.

On the other side, several top Obama aides, including Ross, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief Leon Panetta, argued that containment wouldn't work. Iran's regional enemies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would not accept American assurances of protection against a nuclear-armed Iran and would pursue their own nukes; Saudi Arabia could get them directly from Pakistan, a close ally. The dynamics of Cold War containment, wherein a "balance of terror" kept the peace between the U.S. and Russia, wouldn't apply in the Middle East, the interventionists argued. "You're in a region where conflict is the norm, not the exception, where everybody's going to feel they have to have a finger on the trigger and where no one feels they can afford to strike second," says Ross.

The most compelling argument for Obama, the former law professor, was that a nuclear Iran would spell the end of the international regime limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Obama had written about the regime in college and had made denuclearization his primary focus in the Senate. He made bolstering the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty a top priority in his first two years as President, and in his second term, Obama is planning to dispatch top aides to negotiate a large nuclear-warhead reduction with Russia.

The debates continued in the Oval Office, with only the President, Donilon, Gates and Clinton present. Clinton argued against containment; Gates advised the President to keep containment as an option, a senior official familiar with the discussions says. "Gates did not want Iran to have the Bomb and was in favor of exerting far greater pressure on the Iranians," Ross says. "But he was against the use of force if all other means failed." Clinton and Gates declined to be interviewed for this story. A former Gates adviser who remains close to him says, "In the 4½ years he was Secretary of Defense, Gates never advocated containment, nor did he ever advocate taking the military option off the table. Indeed, at his urging and with the President's approval, the Pentagon took a number of steps to be better prepared to implement the military option if required."

Aides now say Obama was always against containment. But Ross says it took much longer for him to decide. "The President took his time making a decision on this, as he should," Ross recalls. Even as Gates continued to press his case, the Administration quietly accelerated its planning for war.

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