Will Robert Gates Sway the Iran Debate?

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Secretary of Defense nominee Robert Gates, January 2005.

If Robert Gates joins the Bush cabinet as the replacement for outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he can be expected to urge President Bush to talk to the leaders of Iran — an option Bush has thus far avoided. Gates made his own views on Iran policy known in mid-2004, when he joined Zbigniew Brzezinski — President Carter's National Security Advisor — in chairing a task force of scholars who issued a report titled "Iran: Time for a New Approach."

The group, commissioned by the ur-establishment Council on Foreign Relations, concluded that the U.S. should engage in direct, sustained talks with Tehran despite — or, in fact, because of — its rogue behavior.

"The Islamic Republic appears to be solidly entrenched and the country is not on the brink of revolutionary upheaval," the group concluded. "Those forces that are committed to preserving Iran's current system remain firmly in control and represent the country's only authoritative interlocutors. The urgency of the concerns surrounding [Iran's] policies mandates the United States to deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall."

President Bush has offered to send envoys to join European Union diplomats in direct talks with Iranian representatives over the nuclear problem, but only if and after Tehran verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment program — a condition rejected by the leadership in Tehran.

Judging by his past statements, Gates seems likely to argue for finding a way through the impasse on the nuclear issue. He may also be sympathetic to European calls for broader Western engagement with Iran, to resolve concerns not only over its nuclear ambitions, but also over its support for Hizballah and Hamas, and over the nature of its involvement in Iraq. The Bush Administration has relied on the Europeans and Russians to convey its views to Tehran and is attempting — so far with little success — to boost popular resistance to the regime from within. But many analysts believe that, if anything, the hard-line forces are only growing stronger.

Gates' pragmatism on Iran was evident when, in 2004, he briefed reporters on the task force report. "We have forces engaged in Afghanistan and in Iraq," Gates said. "We have a nuclear program going forward in Iran that looks very dangerous. And our view is, do we sit on the sidelines and watch those things happen, including negative things, or do we try and do something about it, for our own interests? We can debate a lot about what's going on inside Iran, how soon things might change in Iran. But what we have to focus on is what is in America's national security interest now and in light of our commitments that we now have in the Middle East and Southwest Asia." And his own conclusion was that U.S. interests required engaging with Iran — a view that has not been dominant within the Bush cabinet until now.