Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has joined the chorus of past and current officials warning that a military strike against Iran could produce dire consequences.
"If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe," he said in a keynote speech to some 400 donors at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's campaign event last week.
At the same time, Gates contradicted recently released U.S. reports citing military and intelligence officials who question whether Iran has decided to pursue a nuclear-weapons capability.
"I have long been convinced that Iran is determined to develop nuclear-weapons capability," said Gates, a former director of the CIA who headed the Pentagon under two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The Iranians see themselves surrounded by nuclear-armed countries, he said. They also see that the United States easily removed Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who had no nuclear weapons, and that the Moammar Gadhafi regime "fell to a ragtag rebel army with Western air support." In contrast, he said, the Iranians observe that the United States and its allies have been far more cautious dealing with the North Koreans because they have a nuclear capability.
Gates' assessment of the Iranian situation was part of a wide-ranging analysis of the Middle East, where he painted an overall grim picture.
"In political terms, the tectonic plate of the Middle East has been shattered," he said during his March 15 remarks at the Federation event at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue. For the foreseeable future, he predicted, the recent developments in the Middle East "present the United States and Israel with far more problems than opportunities."
He warned that a military attack on Iran's nuclear sites would not be simple, given that they have dispersed their nuclear facilities to several sites, some in open areas, others deep underground.
"I suspect there are a number we have not yet identified," he said. "While we could undoubtedly set back their program two or three years with an attack," the result would mean that 70 million restive Iranians "would rally behind their mullahs."
"While the Iranian ability to attack us militarily here at home is virtually non-existent for now," he said, their response could still be devastating. That reaction, he said, could involve closing the Persian Gulf to oil exports and attacking oil facilities in other countries. Most significantly, he said: "Their capacity to wage a series of terror attacks across the Middle East aimed at us and our friends, and dramatically worsen the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere is hard to overestimate."
Despite the dire assessment, he said, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is also inconceivable. "If the Iranian government refuses to change its policies, and there is no military attack on Iran, we will very likely face a catastrophe of a different sort — a nuclear-armed Iran with missiles that can reach Israel and eventually reach Europe; an Iran that would likely ignite a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world; an Iran emboldened to behave even more aggressively in Iraq, Afghanistan, against Israel and all across the region."
Asserting that the recent sanctions imposed by the United States and the world are "starting to really bite," he said that "our best chance" is to ratchet up the economic pressure and diplomatic isolation to the point that Iranian leadership concludes that pursuing nuclear weapons is more of a threat to Iranian security than abandoning them.
Without naming names, he criticized some politicians' approaches to the Iranian problem as too simplistic. "Make no mistake about it: How to deal with Iran's defiance of international norms and its nuclear program is one of the most difficult and dangerous challenges this country has faced in decades."
It's a challenge, he added, "where I believe the most likely outcomes are all bad. Any decision to act or not to act will be one of the most consequential any president has had to make."
At the same time that the United States pursues sanctions, he said, it must maintain a military presence in the Gulf region and also maintain relationships with nations most vulnerable to an Iran attack. "And, of course," he added, "we have to continue to strengthen our security relationship with Israel."
"The Israeli people and their friends around the world have no choice but to take Iran's threat" to wipe Israel off the map seriously, he said.
Noting that when he returned to the Pentagon in 2006, he learned that it had been eight years since a defense secretary had visited Israel. He made sure it was one of the first countries he visited.
Since then, the level of cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli militaries has improved each year, he said, citing the 10-year $30 billion agreement signed in 2007 to guarantee Israel's military edge in the region. He noted that the cooperation has intensified under Obama, with the United States providing funding for key defense systems.
He also noted that the "benefits of our cooperation go both ways, making both of our militaries stronger." He cited Israeli-produced anti-mine kits, produced on a kibbutz, that he said have saved the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gates, who now serves as chancellor of the College of William and Mary, recalled his first time in Israel during the negotiations of the 1979 Camp David Accords, when he was serving as special assistant to Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. A 2 a.m. walk through Jerusalem, he said, "was one of the most profoundly religious experiences of my entire life."
Now, when he looks across the Middle East, particularly at the revolutions that have upended the political landscape, he sees a situation where the United States' influence is limited.
"Whatever happens across the region will play out across time and, frankly, there isn't much outsiders can do to affect the outcome," he said. "The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya destroyed the old regimes; now comes the hard part."
For Israel, he said, the seismic shifts in the region mean that the relationships and the security that Israel's decades-long agreements with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey produced "can no longer be taken for granted."
And in Syria, "as much as we would welcome the demise of the Assad government, it begs the uncomfortable question of what might come next."
He cited Iraq, "as messy as it is," as the only true Arab democracy. Regardless of the outcome on the ground in Iraq, he acknowledged that the war there, which he inherited when he joined the Bush administration in 2006, "will always be tainted in the eyes of many, if not most Americans, by how and why it was launched."
"When it comes to the statecraft of national security," he added, "we don't get do-overs."