According to recent news reports, in January Secretary of Defense Bob Gates sent a memo to National Security Advisor retired General James Jones warning that the United States was ill-prepared for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions. Gates's assessment is based on the assumptions that the Obama administration's outreach effort to Tehran has failed (it has) and that sanctions, even if applied (not likely), will not be successful (doubtful).
The Obama Administration "Brain Trust" - the President, General Jones, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As I said in the title, Gates gets it - the others, not so much....
The fact that Gates had to write this memo to the National Security Advisor is troubling. From my conversations with military and civilian officials at the Pentagon, there is concern that this Administration does not fully realize the magnitude of the Iranian nuclear issue, including the ramifications beyond our shores of a nuclear-armed Iran, specifically to our allies in the Middle East. normally that means just Israel, but in the case of Iran, also includes the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
Surprisingly, even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, does not seen to appreciate the consequences of an Iran with a nuclear arsenal. His comments indicate a reluctance to advise the President on the use of effective use of military force - that's his job, by the way. Mullen's remarks that a military strike would be counterproductive send the wrong message to Tehran. Although he has stated that the Department of Defense has contingency plans, most people I have talked to regard these plans as outdated and not to be taken seriously.
Secretary Gates, on the other hand, appears to see the situation with Iran as a likely diplomatic failure that just might require some action by American armed forces. Those actions run the gamut from the recent increase in the deployment of Patriot anti-ballistic missile defense systems to our Gulf allies, an increased maritime presence in the Gulf, more naval patrols off the Straits of Hormuz, forward basing of strategic aircraft, etc., to the actual employment of force. The Pentagon, thanks to Gates and the January memo, is now developing realistic options. We also need to make sure that the Iranians are made aware that there are realistic military options.
No matter the options available, it will still require the President to determine what actions are to be taken. The Administration has said repeatedly that Iran will not be allowed to become a nuclear state, but American officials have never said what they are prepared to do to prevent that from happening. General Jones is on record as saying that the administration has a plan that "anticipates the full range of contingencies."
I am not sure either the President or Jones gets it. The Obama diplomacy has failed. The three sanctions protocols levied by the United Nations along with the unilateral U.S. sanctions have not modified Iran's behavior in the slightest. The prospects for Secretary Clinton's "crippling" sanctions are extremely dim. The Obama deadline of an Iranian response to the issue - the end of 2009 - has come and gone with no consequences.
The most telling statement thus far this year was a government spokesman claiming that the United States would ensure that Iran does not “acquire a nuclear capability...that includes the ability to have a breakout.” A breakout refers to the tactic of acquiring all the capabilities to make a weapon, then renouncing the Non-Proliferation Treaty and declaring itself a nuclear power - think North Korea. Our failure to respond meaningfully to that action was heard loud and clear in Tehran.
Iran may be positioning itself for just such a breakout. I do not think that anything that happens in Syria and Lebanon is not scripted in Tehran. There was a report last week that Syria had provided Scud missiles to Hizballah -why they need Scuds is puzzling, but may be part of the Iranian attempt at deterring the Israelis from a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Gates has told the White House the United States needs to be thinking about the full range of foreign policy tools. That goes beyond the failed diplomatic outreach and sanctions. Time is running out.