Robert Gates, US defence secretary, stressed on Saturday that Iran remained a threat to the world despite a new American intelligence report that Tehran suspended its nuclear weapons programme four years ago.
“Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents – Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike,” Mr Gates said in an uncharacteristically tough speech.
“There can be little doubt that their destabilising foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the US, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing.”
Speaking at the Manama Dialogue conference sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mr Gates called on Gulf states to cooperate more with each other in the security arena. He also urged them to cooperate with the US towards creating a regional missile defence system to guard against Iranian missiles.
“We should bear in mind the deterrent effect such a system would have,” Mr Gates said. “If the chances of a successful attack are greatly reduced, then so too is the value of pursuing offensive weapons programs and delivery systems.”
The White House has come under heavy criticism since the release earlier this week of the latest national intelligence estimate on Iran. For months, the Bush administration has delivered a string of tough rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear programme. The NIE concluded that Tehran had a secret nuclear weapons programme, but halted it in 2003. However, Mr Gates said the intelligence assessment showed that Iran was “keeping its options open”.
“[It] could re-start its nuclear weapons program at any time – I would add, if it has not done so already,” said Mr Gates.
The NIE said the US intelligence community “assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”
Critics have accused the White House of exaggerating the threat posed by Iran. Asked yesterday to explain the US ”spin” on Iran, Mr Gates acknowledged that the release of the NIE had come at an “awkward” time for the Bush administration, which wants the international community, especially Russia and China, to step up pressure on Iran, and acknowledged that it had “annoyed” some US allies.
With a touch of sarcasm that elicted laughter from parts of the audience, Mr Gates described as a “watershed” moment Iran’s embracing of the main conclusion of the NIE. But he said Tehran should not “cherry pick” the conclusions in the NIE that it liked, stressing that the report pointed to the existence of a previous covert nuclear weapons programme. He added that Iran should also accept other conclusions of US intelligence, including allegations that it is supporting militias in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US commanders have expressed hope that Iran may be curtailing its support for militias because of a decline in the kinds of attacks that Iran has been accused of facilitating, such as those involving sophisticated roadside bombs. But they argue that the “jury is still out” as to whether Tehran has taken an active decision to reduce support.
Iraqi politicians have recently said Iran was behaving itself in Iraq. In an interview, however, Admiral William Fallon, the head of US Central Command which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said he had not seen “such a clear change”.
“I don’t know that they are really behaving to the extent that we need them to be behaving,” said Adm Fallon. “I still think this is a major problem not withstanding that there has been some restraint.”
Adm Fallon, one of several senior military officers who have tried to tamp down speculation that the US is preparing military action against Iran, also welcomed the NIE report. He said there had been a lot of incomplete information on Iran, and that the report “helps filling in a lot of black spots on the page”.
“But it still begs the question of what do they really have in mind and what will it take to get constructive activity,” he added.
Adm Fallon, who was attending the Manama conference, said that “even in the wake of the NIE, it is clear that people in the region are concerned [about Iran]”.
Manouchehr Mottaki , Iran’s foreign minister, was scheduled to attend the meeting but pulled out at the last minute.
Mr Gates, who was in Bahrain on the final leg of a week-long trip that took him to Djibouti, Afghanistan, and Iraq, called on the international community to step up pressure on Iran to make sure it could not restart a nuclear weapons programme. He also rejected suggestions that the US and European efforts to apply pressure on Iran had been severely damaged by the NIE, saying “I don’t think it has been destroyed”.
Asked during a sometimes hostile question and answer session whether he believed Israeli nuclear weapons posed a threat to the Gulf region, Mr Gates responded: “No, I do not”. When pressed later, he said Israel was not involved in proliferation or sponsoring terrorism.
Looking back to the Cold War, Mr Gates, former director of the CIA, said many people in the 1970s had “discounted the value of holding strategic talks” with the Soviet Union although in the end “maintaining that dialogue helped each side better understand the other’s intentions, and laid the groundwork for gains that ultimately brought the Cold War to a close”.
But when asked why the US would not apply the same logic to Iran and hold high-level talks with Tehran, Mr Gates said Iran’s “behaviour has not given one confidence that a dialogue would be productive on a range of issues”.
The tough rhetoric from the White House raised speculation that the US was preparing to take military action against Iran, although senior US military commanders, including Adm Fallon have attempted to tone down the language, saying military action was not being planned. Mr Gates on Saturday repeated the US mantra that “all options are on the table” but said the US at this point was “100 per cent” focused on applying diplomatic and economic pressure.
In an effort to hit back at suggestions in the Middle East that the US has been weakened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Gates said that would be a “grave misconception”.
“Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union – all made this fundamental miscalculation. All paid the price. All are on the ash heap of history. As I have said before, restraint should never be confused with weakness.”