Last week’s partial leak of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s January memo on Iran, and the later statements from Gates and Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy, reveal two crucial points.
First, the Obama administration is deeply divided about its Iran policy, beyond the current effort to get new sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council. Second — and more important — there is a serious risk that President Barack Obama may eventually be maneuvered into ordering military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.
Gates’s memo — which its leaker described to The New York Times as a “wake-up call” about the administration’s lack of a long-term strategy for dealing with Tehran’s nuclear program — is consistent with the defense secretary’s long-standing views on Iran.
Gates publicly questions whether attacking Iranian nuclear targets will accomplish anything of strategic significance. He recognizes that potential downsides — including retaliation against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — could be severely damaging to Washington’s regional position.
Gates also seems to believe that the United States can “contain” an Iran that has mastered uranium enrichment but stops short of actually building a nuclear weapon. Even if Iran detonates a device, in Gates’s view it should still be eminently containable.
In sum, Gates believes the United States does not need to go to war over Iran’s nuclear program….