Defense Secretary Robert Gates, according to Sunday's New York Times, warned President Obama in a classified memo in January that the U.S. lacks an effective strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear progress. Gates later rushed to set the record straight, saying his memo had been designed to "contribute to an orderly and timely decisionmaking process." But that may be a distinction without much of a difference; the sentiments attributed to him in the original report remain a coldly clear assessment of the Administration's Iran strategy.
The Times reported that Gates warned that the U.S. had no clear policy guidelines in place should Iran ignore international sanctions and continue to develop its nuclear program to the point that the country becomes a "threshold" power. In that event, Iran would (as Japan is reputed to) have all the major components necessary to quickly assemble a bomb but still refrain from taking the final steps in order to remain within the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many analysts and policymakers believe that reaching such a threshold, rather than obtaining a full strategic nuclear arsenal, is Iran's goal.
Administration officials, the Times story suggests, hope to prevent Iran from achieving even threshold capability, although it's tough to see how that will be accomplished. Most of Washington's focus is on building international support for a new round of U.N. sanctions. U.S. officials have made much of the fact that Russia and China have eased their opposition to new measures, but the harsh reality is that any new measures adopted at the Security Council are likely to be watered down by Moscow and Beijing to a point where they're highly unlikely to change Iran's behavior. The "crippling sanctions" demanded on Monday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are unlikely to emerge from the U.N. process. Indeed, Russia and China both stress that sanctions are unlikely to have a positive impact on the standoff and could complicate the search for a diplomatic compromise.
In order to prevent Tehran from achieving threshold status, the U.S. and its allies hope to stop Iran from enriching uranium altogether, even for energy purposes but on that issue, the Western position has limited international support. The Russians and Chinese, like other Security Council members such as Brazil, Lebanon and Turkey all three of which continue to oppose new sanctions don't see Iran as an imminent nuclear threat and insist that a diplomatic solution should be found via dialogue with Iran. The Western powers maintain that dialogue failed when Iran turned down a deal that would have exchanged much of its stockpile of enriched uranium for reactor fuel. Iran has begun floating a new version of that deal on terms previously rejected by the Western powers hoping, no doubt, to further deflate any sanctions momentum. Comments on Monday by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley that the U.S. remains "interested in pursuing that offer if Iran is interested" suggest Tehran could yet manage to reopen negotiations.
While unilateral sanctions by the U.S. and its allies targeting Iran's gasoline imports have persuaded a number of third-country suppliers to pull out of the Iranian market, China remains Iran's key energy partner and is unlikely to join such a strategy. Attempts by the U.S. Congress to force the issue by penalizing Chinese companies doing business with Iran could scupper whatever sanctions consensus has been achieved at the U.N.
In short, Obama's sanctions option is likely to be as protracted and frustrating as it was for the Bush Administration. And what Gates' memo, according to the Times story, seems to be suggesting, is that the Obama Administration had better plan for the eventuality that sanctions will fail. That message is also coming from Republican critics like Arizona Senator John McCain, who said on Sunday, "We have to be willing to pull the trigger on significant sanctions," by which he meant unilateral Western measures that China and Russia would not back. "And then we have to make plans for whatever contingencies follow if those sanctions are not effective." That should include the option of military action, said the Senator, who on the campaign famously suggested that "the only thing worse than bombing Iran is Iran with the bomb."
But while the U.S. claims broad international support for its diplomatic effort to restrain Iran from building a nuclear weapon, such support would narrow dramatically for any military action. It's far from clear even that the U.S. military shares McCain's view. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen have repeatedly made clear that military action could succeed only in delaying Iran's nuclear progress but at a risk of sparking a regional war with unpredictable consequences.
Gates doesn't want the issue to come down to a choice between bombing Iran or watching it achieve threshold capacity. But he also has good reason to doubt that the current sanctions effort will work and to press the Administration to figure out its next steps.