Gates satisfied with U.S. planning on Iran

By KEVIN BARON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 29, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va. — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he was satisfied with U.S. planning regarding Iran’s nuclear program, rebuffing mounting criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran during a joint Pentagon appearance Tuesday with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

“I am very satisfied with the planning process, both in this building and in the interagency,” Gates said. “We spend a lot of time on Iran and will continue to do so.”

Barak added, “I think the U.S. is doing the right thing.”

Their roughly 12-minute appearance in the Pentagon briefing room, a rare formal setting for visiting foreign defense ministers and the first such arrangement for Barak, portrayed a unified front.

Gates said the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security was “unshakable,” while Barak said the “special relationship” between them is “unbreakable.”

U.S.-Israeli relations have been strained by Israel’s continued settlement construction and Washington’s insistence on pushing any consideration of military strikes against Iran into the future. When the two men met in Jerusalem in July, Gates urged patience in allowing Iran to respond to softer U.S. overtures from President Barack Obama’s still young administration.

On Monday, Obama made a surprise appearance at a White House meeting between the Israeli minister and National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones.

Barak also met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said they had “an excellent, very constructive, positive conversation.”

When he reached the Pentagon, Barak said, “The time is, clearly, at this stage, the time for sanctions and diplomacy,” but added that sanctions should be “limited in time.”

In the past week, the Pentagon has rebuffed reports of inconsistent statements by its senior defense officials about possible U.S. military responses to Iran should Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime continue to reject international pleas to halt its pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities. On April 18, The New York Times reported that Gates penned a rare memo to the White House warning that the U.S. lacked a clear plan for certain scenarios. Gates later said the memo was “not intended as a ‘wake-up call.’ ”

That day, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. would use a military strike against Iran only as a last option. In the ensuing week, Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon’s top policy official, said during a Singapore visit that military strikes were a “last resort” that “is not on the table in the near term,” according to Reuters.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell later told reporters Wednesday that “military action has never, ever been taken off the table.”

Meanwhile, GOP leaders criticized Obama’s administration for proclaiming an “open hand” policy while showing no teeth. Sen. John McCain said at the time, “I didn’t need a secret memo to know we didn’t have a coherent policy.”

House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, on his official blog, said the administration’s “own policies and actions are signaling weakness,” at Israel’s expense.

On Wednesday, Boston Globe columnist H.D.S. Greenway wrote, “it’s doubtful that the United States has a workable policy.”

“There are really only two options if sanctions fail: attack Iran or prepare to live with an Iranian bomb,” he said.

That’s a scenario Israel is unlikely to accept.

“We feel that we are living at the focal point of the main challenges that the free world is facing now,” Barak said, listing extremism, terrorism and nuclear proliferation by rogue and failed states.

Adding one more item to the list of security concerns, Gates said, “From our vantage point, Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rocket and missiles of ever-increasing capability. This is obviously destabilizing for the whole region and so we’re watching it very carefully.”