Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has delivered an important if not ringing endorsement of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. His support might help Obama close the sale with key Democrats of the controversial agreement designed to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions in return for lifting economic sanctions on Tehran.
Speaking to a conference of state legislators in Seattle Wednesday, the highly regarded Gates raised major concerns about the agreement, but argued that the consequences of walking away from it would be too great.
Gates was harsh in his assessment of the Obama White House national security team in his book “Duty” published in 2014, calling the advisers a highly insular group of micro-managers who got in the way of Defense Department and intelligence agency operations.
However, with the chips down, Gates appears ready to stand by Obama at this critical moment. The president’s signature foreign policy initiative is hanging in the balance on Capitol Hill. Republican opponents will press for a resolution of disapproval in September to torpedo the complicated nuclear nonproliferation agreement, which has been in the works for the better part of two years.
The former defense chief said that without international support from key allies like France and Britain, congressional rejection of the agreement would leave the United States diplomatically isolated while giving Iran the green light to continue developing a nuclear weapon, according to a report by Reid Wilson of Morning Consult.
“We must now face the reality that there are serious consequences to voting down the agreement or pulling out of it,” he said. “I think we swallow hard, acknowledge our negotiators got out-negotiated, and that we have a flawed deal, and make the best of it.”
Gates’s comments coincided with Obama’s toughly worded defense of the agreement yesterday in a speech at American University, in which he chastised his Republican opponents as the same people who created the “drumbeat of war” that got the U.S. into war in Iraq over a decade ago.
Waving off the widespread disagreement among politicians, defense analysts and other academics over the efficacy of the agreement, Obama argued there was little doubt the U.S and its allies had achieved the best deal possible. At one point he declared: “It’s not even close.”
Gates made it clear in his Seattle remarks that as a piece of statecraft, the nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S. and five other powerful countries left plenty to be desired from the American vantage point.
“The agreement rests on the overly optimistic belief, the hope really, that [removing] sanctions will lead Iran over time, in effect, to become a normal country,” Gates said, according to the report. “We should harbor no illusions about the regime we are dealing with.”
Gates said he was deeply concerned that Iran was both willing and able to cheat on the agreement and that there would be plenty of opportunities to do that under the agreement. He was especially worried about one provision that requires international inspectors to provide Iran with 24 days’ notice before inspecting Iranian nuclear facilities.
Critics say that this provision would give Iran plenty of time to clean up and hide any evidence of illegal uranium enrichment activities, despite the administration’s insistence that there would be no way for Iranians to clean up a facility or move out radioactive material without inspectors becoming aware.
The former defense secretary also raised doubts about the so-called “snap-back” provisions that would allow the United Nations, the U.S., and other countries that took part in the negotiations to reimpose tens of billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions if Iran is found to be cheating on the agreement.
“Once the sanctions are lifted, it will be nearly impossible to get them reimposed by the United Nations, by Russia and China especially, despite the administration’s assurance of snap-back provisions,” Gates said.
Gates, 71, a tough-minded but quiet-spoken military and national security authority, caused waves with his memoir after he left government in 2011. He clashed frequently with senior White House national security advisers on everything from intervention in Libya and the conduct of the war in Iraq to the details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
His book offered a harsh assessment of Vice President Joseph Biden, describing him as a “motormouth” who was impossible not to like but who “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
By contrast, Hillary Clinton was one of the few high level administration officials who came off well in the book. Although they had their differences, Gates portrayed Clinton as consistently mature and cooperative, according to one review. Biden, of course, is considering challenging Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.