US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had more than one object in mind on Tuesday, Nov. 16 when he remarked to the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, "Military action would not stop Iran's nuclear program and instead would only make it deeper and more covert."
He chose to address a reputedly hawkish platform in order to offset the growing tendency of US media outlets fostered by the White House to imply that the Obama administration no longer rules out military action against Iran before long. His remark came two days after The Washington Post reported: "Although the Obama administration has publicly stressed its interest in negotiations, some administration officials and advisers privately think the president would use military force to set back Iran's nuclear program if it appeared the country was on the verge of having weapons capability."
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 468 of November 5: US Military Buildup Continues)
On Nov. 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the United States called for a credible US military threat ("…although sanctions have hurt Iran, Tehran will be determined to produce nuclear weapons unless it thinks a military strike is a real option," he said).
However, Gates was not primarily addressing the media or the Israeli prime minister but rather contesting the White House circles which are expounding the new US policy of military brinkmanship against Iran.
But the penny dropped first in Tehran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report the ayatollahs found a source of leverage in their discovery that Washington was now speaking in two voices: There was President Barack Obama, determined to up the military pressure on Tehran before nuclear negotiations resumed on December 5; and there was Defense Secretary Gates, opposed to an American military strike on the grounds that it would only drive Iran's nuclear program further underground.
The second half of that comment was a dig at Western intelligence agencies which monitor the Iranian nuclear program who take it for granted that many parts of Iran's military program are already concealed too deeply and covertly for information about them to be obtainable.
Gates thinks a military strike would speed Iran's attainment of a bomb
The US Defense Secretary, furthermore, challenged the experts' conviction that Iran is already in possession of a nuclear weapon. He was saying that Iran, if attacked, would be impelled to speed up its progress and attain its object of a bomb – or two within two or three years.
This was his answer to the serious intelligence insiders and nuclear scientists who see no point in engaging Iran in diplomacy on uranium enrichment because it has already stashed nuclear bombs away in those covert nuclear facilities.
A leading proponent of this view was the late Professor Israel Dostrovsky, reputed to be one of the fathers of Israel's nuclear program and designer of its heavy water plant. Before he died on Sept. 28, he made it his business to air his conviction from the evidence and the confidential information in his possession that Iran already has a nuclear weapon and Israel is in real danger of annihilation.
Gates performed a serious disservice to US intelligence and the efficacy of its penetration of Iran when he claimed "We even have some evidence that Khamenei, now [is] beginning to wonder if Ahmadinejad is lying to him about the impact of the sanctions on the economy. And whether he's getting the straight scoop in terms of how much trouble the economy really is in."
Granted, in the past couple of weeks a number of Iranian exiles have inferred from a single sentence uttered recently by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that a quarrel has sprung up between him and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the economy.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and intelligence sources are sure for the following reasons they and Gates made the wrong inference and in doing so betrayed their ignorance:
Ahmadinejad is both inveterate liar and architect of Iran's nuclear success
1. Ahmadinejad is an inveterate liar, which Khameini knows better than anyone. He lies to every member of the Iranian leadership except for the supreme leader.
2. Khamenei's bureau employs not one but two intelligence outfits – Special Department (Bavrasi Viseh) A and Special Department B, which are among the largest clandestine services in the country. Operating independently of one another, they keep tabs on every high-placed political, intelligence, military and religious official in the land, including the president and Revolutionary Guards Corps chiefs, feeding the supreme leader running accounts of their political, military and financial activities.
Ahmadinejad knows that the ayatollah is apprised of all his machinations and the untruths he hawks to fellow officials and understands he risks paying a price in credibility and his standing with the supreme leader. But he is not really worried.
3. If Gates was trying to stir up trouble between the two, it was done too clumsily to succeed. This is surprising in the head of the Pentagon and a former Deputy Director of the CIA. He should have known that Khamenei puts up with the president's weaknesses and foibles and lends him his unqualified support because he regards him as the only man in the country able to bring its nuclear weapons program to completion and arm Iran with a stock of nuclear weapons
When he came to power in 2005, Ahmadinejad found Iran's civil and military nuclear programs in a state of neglect and beset by problems. Iran's scientific and technical community regarded attempts to salvage them with extreme skepticism.
Five years later, in the teeth of collective antagonism from the world's powers led by the United States, as well as the Arab world and Israel, Iran can boast a working nuclear reactor at Bushehr, a stock of enriched uranium sufficient for assembling at least two nuclear bombs, two active weaponization tracks (uranium and plutonium) and an arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
How on earth did Defense Secretary Gates imagine he could hope to drive a wedge between the supreme leader and the architect of Iran's nuclear success?