WASHINGTON - United States President Barack Obama's refusal in a White House
briefing this month to announce a "red line" in regard to Iran's nuclear
program represented another in a series of rebuffs of pressure from Defense
Secretary Robert Gates for a statement that the US will not accept its existing
stocks of low enriched uranium.
The Obama rebuff climaxed a months-long internal debate between Obama and Gates
over the "breakout capability" issue that surfaced in the news media last
Gates has been arguing that Iran could turn its existing stock of low-enriched
uranium (LEU) into a capability to build a nuclear
weapon secretly by using covert enrichment sites and undeclared sources of
That Gates argument implies that the only way to prevent Iran having enough
bomb-grade uranium for nuclear weapons is to insist that Iran must give up most
of its existing stock of LEU, which could be converted into enough bomb-grade
uranium for one bomb.
But Obama has publicly rejected the idea that Iran's existing stock of LEU
represents a breakout capability on more than one occasion. He has stated that
Iran would have to make an overt move to have a "breakout capability" that
would signal its intention to have a nuclear weapon.
Obama's most recent rebuff of the Gates position came in the briefing he gave
to a select group of journalists on August 4.
Peter David of The Economist, who attended the briefing, was the only
journalist to note that Obama indicated that he was not ready to lay down any
public red lines "at this point". Instead, Obama said it was important to set
out for the Iranians a clear set of steps that the US would accept as proof
that the regime was not pursuing a bomb.
Obama appeared to suggest that there are ways for Iran to demonstrate its
intent not to build a nuclear bomb other than ending all enrichment and
reducing its stock of low enriched uranium to a desired level.
Iran denies any intention of making nuclear weapons, but has made no secret
that it wants to have enough low enriched uranium to convince potential
adversaries that it has that option.
At a 2005 dinner in Tehran, Hassan Rowhani, then secretary of Iran's Supreme
National Security Council, told George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace that Iran didn't need a nuclear weapon, as long as it had
the "mastery of the fuel cycle" as a deterrent to external aggression.
Gates raised the issue of the Iranian ability to achieve a breakout capability
in a three-page memorandum addressed to national security adviser Jim Jones in
January 2010, as first reported in the New York Times on April 18.
In reporting the Gates memo, David E Sanger of the New York Times wrote, "Mr
Gates's memo appears to reflect concerns in the upper echelons of the Pentagon
and the military that the White House did not have a well-prepared series of
alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed."
In the statement issued on the memo on April 18, Gates said it "identified next
steps in our defense planning process where further interagency discussion and
policy decisions would be needed in the months and weeks ahead".
The Sanger article appeared eight days after differences between Obama and
Gates over the Iranian breakout capability issue had surfaced publicly in
Obama used an April 1 interview with CBS News to distinguish between Iran's
"trying to develop the capacity to develop nuclear weapons" from a decision to
actually possess nuclear weapons.
"They might decide that, once they have that capacity that they'd hold off
right at the edge - in order not to incur more sanctions," he observed. Obama
talked about a new round of international sanctions as his response to that
Hardliners in Washington wanted Obama to go further. David E Sanger of the New
York Times invited Obama in an April 5 interview to draw the US red line at an
Iranian breakout capability, Obama refused to do so.
Sanger asked Obama whether the United States could "live with an Iran that runs
right up to the edge" - precisely the scenario Obama had suggested as a
distinct possibility four days earlier.
Obama's answer made it clear that he understood that Sanger was pushing the
Gates line that there is no obvious firebreak between Iran's low enriched
uranium stocks and a breakout capability.
"North Korea was said to be simply a nuclear-capable state until it kicked out
the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and became a self-professed
nuclear state," said Obama.
But Gates went public a few days later with a sharply different position on the
When David Gregory of interviewed both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
and Gates on NBC's Meet the Press on April 9, he had apparently been
informed about differences of view within the administration on the issue of an
Iranian "nuclear capability".
Gregory asked Clinton, "Is a nuclear-capable Iran as dangerous as a nuclear
state of Iran?" to which Clinton answered, "Well, clearly weapons are more
dangerous than potential."
Gregory then asked Gates whether a nuclear-capable Iran is "just as dangerous
as being a nuclear state to your mind?"
Gates answered, "Only in this respect: how you differentiate how far, how far
have they gone? If they - if their policy is to go to the threshold but not
assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell that they have not assembled?"
Gates said he didn't know "how you would verify that".
That exchange would have confused anyone who was not an insider to the
Washington policy debate on Iran. The real issue was not whether the United
States could "tell that they have not assembled" but whether Iran could turn
its stock of low enriched uranium into weapons-grade uranium without kicking
out international inspectors first and signaling their intentions.
Israel and extreme alarmists in the United States have long argued that Iran
could use covert enrichment sites to enrich uranium to bomb-grade levels and
might have access to undeclared uranium stocks. But a source familiar with the
issue told Inter Press Service that the Defense Department had not been
claiming that there is any intelligence indicating secret Iranian sites or
Gates appears to have been trying to maneuver Obama into adopting a policy
under which the United States would have a reason for threatening Iran unless
it agreed to divest itself of its low enriched uranium stocks and end
Although he has opposed an attack on Iran in both the George W Bush and Obama
administrations, Gates has also been the primary advocate of creating
"leverage" over Iran as well as over Russia and China in regard to tougher
In an interview with Sanger in early 2008, quoted in Sanger's book, The
Inheritance, Gates said the main problem he had with the 2007 national
intelligence estimate on Iran was that it "made our effort to strengthen
sanctions more difficult, because people figured, well the military option is
now off the table".
Thus far the Obama administration has not given emphasis to the threat of US
attack on Iran. Instead it has sought to use the threat of an Israeli attack on
Iran as leverage, even as it warns the Israelis privately not to attempt such
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.