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U.S. Muddling the Iran Issue

Muddling the Iran Issue INSS Insight No. 177, April 26, 2010
Schachter, Jonathan, Landau, Emily B., and Asculai, Ephraim

On April 17 the New York Times revealed that in January US Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates wrote a memo to National Security Adviser James Jones
on the need to develop policy options regarding Iran’s drive to develop
nuclear weapons. One senior White House official is quoted as describing the
memo, which came after President Obama’s end of 2009 diplomatic deadline had
come and gone, as “a wake-up call” testifying to the US’s lack of a workable
long term policy for confronting the Iranian nuclear challenge. The day
after the Times’s publication, Gates acknowledged that he had indeed written
the memo, but disputed the characterization of its content and intent,
saying that his goal was “to contribute to an orderly and timely
decision-making process.”

The absence of a clear American strategy to deal with an aggressively
nuclearizing Iran has been apparent for some time, and thus this revelation
comes as no surprise. In addition, Gates’s own description of the memo
strongly suggests that “an orderly and timely decision-making process” was
eminently lacking. The only real surprise, it seems, is the blunt assessment
coming from within the administration.

It is possible that the memo was leaked in order to document Gates’s
concerns about the increasing likelihood that Iran would achieve nuclear
weapons capability before long and on his watch. It is also possible that as
an appointee of President George W. Bush, Gates might be setting the stage
for his own resignation. Alternatively, the memo might reflect simple
disagreement or for that matter much more heated battles between the
Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership.

Whatever the true reason or reasons, the leak of the memo and the
multiplicity of plausible interpretations and explanations are indicative of
the real problem with
US policy on Iran: mixed and confused messages.

In this regard, the Times write-up also hints at a possible move toward more
intensive preparation of policy options on Iran, including the use of force.
Jones is quoted in the article as pointing out that the fact that the US
does not publicly announce its entire strategy doesn’t mean that it is not
anticipating a full range of contingencies. Another “senior administration
official” is said to have described to the reporters “in somewhat clearer
terms that there was a line Iran would not be permitted to cross.” Yet in
order for conventional or nuclear deterrence to prevail against a highly
motivated and in many ways ideologically focused state like Iran, American
deterrence messages must be unmistakable. As the messages surrounding the
Gates memo underscore, this is decidedly not the case.

Since publication of the memo, the confusion regarding the military option
has continued. On April 21, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle
Flournoy told the press that regarding Iran, “[military force] is not on the
table in the near term.” By that same evening Department of Defense Press
Secretary Geoff Morrell backtracked, asserting that “we are not taking any
options off the table as we pursue the pressure and engagement tracks.” Is
the military option on or off the table?
Similarly, American use of flexible deterrent options also has sent a mixed
message. At the end of January, the US announced that it was accelerating
the sale of anti-missile systems to Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar
and moving Aegis cruisers, with their limited anti-missile capability, into
the Gulf. Yet such defensive systems carry no real or implied threat to Iran
or its interests. On the contrary, their deployment hints that the US has in
some ways reconciled itself to an Iran able to threaten its neighbors with

Iranian decision-makers are likely to take note and advantage of the evident
lack of internal US consensus regarding the use of its military capabilities
and the various factors contributing to that indecisiveness. Senior US
officials have noted repeatedly the serious constraint that the US faces
while the military is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama
administration’s linkage between efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear progress and
resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undoubtedly has been
interpreted in Tehran as an issue that will buy the regime additional
precious development time.

Though Gates wrote his memo in January, it probably just as easily could
have been written today. The continuing lack of clarity that characterizes
the US approach
to Iran demonstrates the depth of the problem. Iran has spurned all
diplomatic overtures. The package of sanctions under consideration at the UN
is growing steadily weaker and is therefore less likely to be effective. A
mixed message from the US can be worse than no message at all; it could be
interpreted by Iran as de facto permission to continue its illegal nuclear
efforts. Are President Obama and his civilian and military staff able to
send a clear, unified, unmistakable, and forceful message to Iran and other
would-be nuclear proliferators? The evidence is discouraging, and time is
running out.

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