Why is Gates downplaying Iran strike?

Analyst says US defense head trying to persuade Israel to delay attack.

robert gates 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
robert gates 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates played down the chances of an IDF strike on Iran, a day after one of the US's top generals warned Israel might do just that. "I guess I would say I would be surprised…if they did act this year," Gates told the Financial Times in an interview published late on Wednesday. He also said that Iran would "probably not" cross a nuclear "red line" within the year, even as Israeli officials talk about Iran having crossed the technological threshold for making a bomb and setting a timeline for dealing with the issue in months rather than years. "I think we have more time than that. How much more time I don't know," Gates said of the end-of-2009 benchmark. "It is a year, two years, three years. It is somewhere in that window." His comments contrasted with those of Gen. David Petraeus, the top US army commander in the Middle East, who told Congress Wednesday that Israel "may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it." And Gates's take Wednesday on Iranian nuclear capabilities echoed his comments moderating Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen's more aggressive assessment in February, when he said Teheran had enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb only to have Gates say the Islamic republic wasn't close to having such a weapon. The mixed messages highlight the different roles played by Gates, a political appointee implementing the Obama administration's program, and military personnel who are not advocating certain policy goals, according to analysts here. They also pointed to the different assessments with the US government about how close Iran is to obtaining a nuclear weapon and the best way to handle the issue. "The US is clearly schizophrenic in terms of how it views the Iranian threat," asserted Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council, saying the disagreements over intelligence implications and the correct approach did not end with the Bush administration. On top of that, he said, the civilian Gates faces a different task than the men in uniform who serve under him at the Pentagon. While the latter present their assessments - often not in the greatest concert with their plain-clothed superiors - Gates has an administration to represent. "Secretary Gates has a boss. The boss has articulated a course of action. It's not good office politics to outline a threat scenario which is undermining of that policy, at least in public," Berman said, contending that if Iran is seen as being closer to producing a nuclear weapon it hurts the administration's argument that there's time to pursue diplomacy. "Gates is in the political business, and he's trying to persuade Israel to delay" an attack on Iran, rather than merely present a policy-neutral assessment of the likelihood of such an attack, Berman added. Though Lawrence Korb, a former US assistant secretary of defense now with the Center for American Progress, differs with Berman on whether Gates is pursuing the right course on Iran, he agreed that political considerations drive the secretary in a way they don't for armed service officials. "Obviously he is speaking for the administration. The military people have to speak the truth to Congress," Korb said, characterizing Gates's message as "basically trying to say, 'Let's not get carried away.'" He added that the differences in this case between the two sets of assessments were "slight" - noting that Gates did not directly contradict Petreaus but rather set a time limit the latter did not - and weren't necessarily an indication of untoward massaging of facts. "It doesn't mean that he isn't stating his own opinion," said Korb of Gates, whom the former described as by nature and by virtue of his CIA background "extremely cautious." Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that Gates is "usually toned down in his comments," and that attribute was likely magnified by the lack of clear intelligence about Teheran's exact nuclear capabilities and timeline for creating a bomb. "I'm not sure anyone really knows" about Iranian capabilities, he said. "It's really a question of where you are politically. If you want [military] action, you're going to say they're close rather than further. If you favor diplomacy, they they're further away." Neumann said that with the different voices that have emerged on these issues within the US government, "The question really is, is the administration coordinating or not?" Having to make that query, he said, could serve a purpose: "They're probably coordinating - they are leaving options open."