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 missiles.
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.