NEW YORK — Since taking over the Department of Defense at the end of last year, Robert Gates has gotten kudos for what he has done, demanding responsibility for mistakes like the Walter Reed debacle and the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death. He is also known to have wanted to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo as a way of helping the United States recover some of its lost credibility in the Muslim world.
But Gates has also been getting quiet credit for something he hasn’t done: push hard on Iran, not raising the temperature in a time of crisis. In particular, Gates has distanced himself from some of the harshest criticism of Iranian operations in Iraq and pushed back on rhetoric calling for military solutions to U.S. problems in the Persian Gulf. Most prominently, on the supply of explosives technology, Gates has declined to point the finger of responsibility at the Iranian government, something his own Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George Casey, has done.
Gates says that some of the technology in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) has found its way into Iraq from Iran, but has left open the question of high-level Iranian involvement.
“I think the evidence is pretty solid that at least the materials for this and some of the machining associated with the EFPs is coming out of Iran,” Gates said in a March 13 interview with Pentagon TV, adding, “What we're not certain of is how high the level of approval these operations goes. That's the area of uncertainty. The fact that these things are coming out of Iran, I think, is not in question.”
Carrots and sticks
Anyone who has followed Gates’ interest in U.S.-Iranian relations should not be surprised at those comments, coming even as they did a month after a more conclusive Defense Intelligence Agency assessment appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Gates, quite simply, is not a hawk on Iran.
As a senior former U.S. intelligence official who worked with Gates said of him, “If Bob Gates is Secretary of Defense, we are not going to war with Iran.”
In fact, three years ago, Gates and former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force on U.S.-Iranian relations. The comments and recommendations found in the report, entitled, “Iran: Time for a New Approach” give a sense of what Gates thinks about Iran.
Conceding the wide gaps on issues like nuclear weapons development, terrorism and Iraq, Gates and Brzezinski still argued for a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic:
“The Task Force proposes selectively engaging Iran on issues where U.S. and Iranian interests converge, and building upon incremental progress to tackle the broader range of concerns that divide the two governments," the final report concluded.
“U.S. policies toward Tehran should make use of incentives as well as punitive measures. The U.S. reliance on comprehensive, unilateral sanctions has not succeeded in its stated objective to alter Iranian conduct and has deprived Washington of greater leverage vis-à-vis the Iranian government apart from the threat of force.”
Shades of détente
Analysts say Gates’ position is one that was finely honed during the Cold War, which he sees as the model for dealing with Iran.
“Just as the United States maintains a constructive relationship with China (and earlier did so with the Soviet Union) while strongly opposing certain aspects of its internal and international policies,” the two Cold Warriors noted, “Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests, while continuing to contest objectionable policies.”
And while that was 2004, Gates more recently gave strong support for negotiations with Iran and Syria while a member of the Iraq Study Group. Gates left the group before its final report to take the Pentagon job, but during his confirmation hearings he reiterated his fundamental support for the talks.
Gates is also on the record as being opposed to those in the White House and elsewhere in Washington who think the Iranian issue can best be resolved by working with Iranian dissidents to overthrow the current regime.
“Despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction, Iran is not on the verge of another revolution,” he and Brzezinski wrote. “Those forces that are committed to preserving Iran’s current system remain firmly in control and currently represent the country’s only authoritative interlocutors.
“Direct U.S. efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime are therefore not likely to succeed; nor would regime change through external intervention necessarily resolve the most critical concerns with respect to Iran’s policies.”
Bottom line for Gates and Brzezinski: Iran “could play a potentially significant role in promoting a stable, pluralistic government in Baghdad. It might be induced to be a constructive actor toward both Iraq and Afghanistan, but it retains the capacity to create significant difficulties for these regimes if it is alienated from the new post-conflict governments in those two countries.”
Reading tea leaves
NBC News military analyst Bill Arkin also pointed to Gates’ appointment of Admiral William Fallon as the head of Central Command as evidence that the new secretary of defense is not going to be calling for extreme measures. Appointment of a Navy admiral, the first for Centcom, indicated to some a readiness to go to war with Iran. Fallon himself has disputed such a characterization.
Arkin said the reverse is true.
“Fallon is a détente-ist,” Arkin says. “Like Gates, he believes more in diplomacy. That is the story here, not his being a Navy admiral.”
Of course, Arkin noted sometimes your adversary does stupid things and you have to react, and there is no guarantee that Gates can play hardball with some of the hard-liners at the White House who want confrontation. But so far, the bottom line is different from past Pentagon thinking.
“It seems to me that Gates has declared that he believes in negotiations and believes in diplomacy so therefore he defers to the State Department," Arkin said. That is not what we would have had if Rumsfeld was still in charge.”
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