David Sanger and Thom Shanker at NYT:
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document.
Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, came in the midst of an intensifying effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course.
Officials familiar with the memo’s contents would describe only portions dealing with strategy and policy, and not sections that apparently dealt with secret operations against Iran, or how to deal with Persian Gulf allies.
One senior official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the memo, described the document as “a wake-up call.” But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
In an interview on Friday, General Jones declined to speak about the memorandum. But he said: “On Iran, we are doing what we said we were going to do. The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy for the world to see doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies — we do.”
The Gates memo broke too late in the news cycle to re-book guests for Sunday, so no one from the administration has been asked to respond on the record. (Coincidence? Probably.) A conventional reading of the Gates memo suggests that the Defense Department, in January, urged the National Security Staff to come up with more (read: military) options for preventing Iran for obtaining a viable nuclear weapon. But that’s not precisely what the memo said, or at least not what the portions quoted by the New York Times says.
But in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.
In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.
According to several officials, the memorandum also calls for new thinking about how the United States might contain Iran’s power if it decided to produce a weapon, and how to deal with the possibility that fuel or weapons could be obtained by one of the terrorist groups Iran has supported, which officials said they considered to be a less-likely possibility.
Since the memo was written in January, the administration has begun to tie Iran’s non-compliance to a strengthened Non Prolfieration Treaty. Right now, the NPT’s penalties for such a “virtual” weapons state are fairly weak. That’s one reason why Gates expressed skepticism that the NPT regime could contain the threat. So the administration wants to significantly increase the penalties for non-compliance, which would provide the president and the world community with more options. It’s hard to imagine that Gates is implying that the U.S. military has not planned for a military strike, or to secretly assist another country in a military surprise, or that the U.S. intelligence community isn’t attempting to secretly undermine and sabotage Iran’s efforts. Why? Because the Pentagon HAS such plans, IS working with other countries and the IC is doing what the IC does. Gates’s memo ought to be read in the context of complaining or urging the administration to create the political will to legitimately exercise those options.
Who leaked it? Start with the lead byline (David Sanger, who has sources throughout the non-proliferation community) and work backwards, thinking about the timing of the memo, the actions taken since the memo, the spins and when the memo was leaked.) Occam’s razor almost always doesn’t apply.
Laura Rozen at Politico:
UPDATE: “The New York Times sources who revealed my January memo to the National Security Advisor mischaracterized its purpose and content,” Gates responded Sunday to the New York Times report. “The memo was not intended as a ‘wake up call’ or received as such by the President’s national security team. Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process.”]
The report on the three month old Gates’s memo follows both open and classified testimony of State Department, intelligence and Pentagon officials to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking Republican on the committee, told Fox News Sunday that he did not “need a secret memo” to think the U.S. doesn’t have “a coherent” Iran policy,” McCain told Chris Wallace. “That’s pretty obvious.”
Scott Johnson at Powerline:
Where is the line? The anonymous senior administration official had more such tough talk. The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability.”
Well, that’s a great relief to those of us who long ago concluded that President Obama has accepted Iran’s imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons, consistent with the administration’s discussion of containment of Iran. Prevention appears to have been thrown out the window some time ago.
Secretary Gates also called for rethinking the containment of Iran when it acquires nuclear capability: “the memorandum also calls for new thinking about how the United States might contain Iran’s power if it decided to produce a weapon, and how to deal with the possibility that fuel or weapons could be obtained by one of the terrorist groups Iran has supported, which officials said they considered to be a less-likely possibility.”
As always with stories like this, one wonders about the motives of the Times’s sources. Why would anonymous officials leak word of a highly classified memorandum suggesting that the administration has no policy beyond what has proved to be empty talk? These apparently well-informed officials must think that we have something to worry about.
Now consider what’s about to happen beyond the next few weeks’ debate over an Iran sanctions resolution at the United Nations Security Council. In May, the U.N. will convene a discussion among NPT signatories about how to strengthen the provisions of the nuclear treaty. Its focus, among other things like international nuke fuel banks, will concern verification and enforcement mechanisms, including how to build in greater “early warning” through the IAEA about when states drift into noncompliance but not outright breach, and what diplomatic actions that danger ought to trigger.
In other words, a precursor to the problem Gates identifies in this memo. (Or, if you prefer, the problem identified in Gates’ memo is a symptom of the category of NPT-lacunae that the conference will address.)
Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:
Really, it’s jaw-dropping that, at this stage, Gates must sound the alarm, reminding everyone that nothing they’ve done so far has or is likely to work. Indeed, it’s hard to see how what the Obami are presently doing won’t impair those military options. After all, Obama is giving the Iranians cover to move ahead with their nuclear program while the UN dithers over negotiations about ineffective sanctions. The problem, we must conclude, is Obama, himself, who seems blissfully unaware of his own inadequate and misguided efforts. (”Some officials said his memo should be viewed in that light: as a warning to a relatively new president that the United States was not adequately prepared. He wrote the memo after Iran had let pass a 2009 deadline set by Mr. Obama to respond to his offers of diplomatic engagement.”)
The Obami seemed unprepared for the failure of engagement last year and are only now working on a sanctions effort; Gates’ memo suggests we are now no more prepared for what is in all likelihood the outcome of the next round of dithering: an Iranian regime undeterred from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. As the Times notes, “Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in the upper echelons of the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well-prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed.” There is no greater national-security challenge than the threat of a nuclear-armed, revolutionary Islamic state. And the president is failing to address it, as his defense secretary warns. The American people and history will judge Obama accordingly.
J.E. Dyer at Commentary:
Pundits are looking for a political motive behind the timing of this leak, but my sense about it is different. This is the second thing worth noting about the New York Times story: its absence of apparent spin. There is no subtle attempt to discredit Gates, to question his motive for the memo, or even to help the leaker(s) drive home a policy point. It’s a very different “leak story,” in other words, from previous ones about Obama’s policy in Afghanistan or Bush’s policy in the war on terror.
It’s almost as if the New York Times, itself, has run out of spin: as if it isn’t sure what it wants readers to think about this. That is as heartening, in its way, as the article is evidence that Secretary Gates recognizes how our military planning has fallen behind the pace of events. The piece gives us a glimpse – rare for the mainstream media – of ground truth about a policy situation. And what it shows us is a “bounded” problem: one for which there are pragmatic, relevant options. If Obama chooses to ignore Gates’s warning, even the New York Times may decline to cooperate in spinning that feckless course
Talk about catnip for the right. They’re absolutely salivating over this one, which will be teed up further on wingnut radio tomorrow. But it’s not like Bush had a plan in place for Iran either, unless you call belligerent bombast and diplomatic freeze-out a strategy.
And why do we not have a long-range plan to deal with Iran going nuclear? Because as I’ve been saying for a very long time, the U.S. cannot prevent Iran from going nuclear, even if they cannot successfully weaponize their technology for a while. But also because no president, White House strategist, or national politician, is allowed to utter anything beyond We will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, something everyone who studies the issue knows is absolute rubbish.
A nuclear capable Iran inevitably leads towards Israel in U.S. political minds, with no person capable of strategizing on U.S. Middle East policy without thinking of our fried first. It paralyzes policy makers.
People have been whispering about a nuclear Iran reality for a very long time. It’s why diplomatic engagement and deterrence is the policy of the day, post Bush’s preemptive doctrine, which was far too nebulous to do anything but stir up more trouble.
The reality is that there is no way to prevent Iran’s steady march to nuclearization, going beyond domestic capabilities.
So, what do I know now that I didn’t know prior to reading Sanger and Shanker? I’d say the following:
1) All policy options on Iran stink.
2) The bureaucratic politics of U.S. Middle East policy are getting worse;
3) The administration has responded to the Gates memo, but not in a way that pleases all of the bureaucratic heavyweights inside the administraion.
4) January is apparently a month of foreign policy “wake-up calls” and “bombshells” in the White House.
What I don’t know, after reading Sanger and Shanker, is whether someone like Gates would approve of the administration’s current contingency planning on Iran.
UPDATE: More Rozen