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Obama Resists Pressure for Red Line on Iran's Nuclear Capability

Gareth Porter

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates look on as President Barack Obama speaks in Eisenhower Hall at the United States Military Academy at West Point Dec. 1, 2009 in West Point, N.Y. President Obama has struggled to keep his foreign policy team aligned as it maneuvers the Iran-Nuclear question.(Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's refusal in a White House briefing
earlier this month to announce a "red line" in regard to the
Iran nuclear programme represented another in a series of
rebuffs of pressure from Defence Secretary Robert Gates for
statement that the United States 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
which surfaced in the news media last April.

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 uranium.

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 Aug. 4.

Peter David of The Economist, who attended the Aug. 4
briefing, was the only journalist to note that Obama
indicated to the journalists 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 U.S. 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

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

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 Apr. 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 Apr. 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 April.

Obama used an Apr. 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

"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 Apr. 5
interview to draw the U.S. 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 and became a self-professed
nuclear state," said Obama.

But Gates went public a few days later with a sharply
different position on the issue.

When David Gregory of interviewed both Clinton and Gates on
NBC's "Meet the Press" Apr. 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

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 IPS that the Defence Department has not been
claiming that there is any intelligence indicating secret
Iranian sites or uranium supplies.

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 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 sanctions.

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 U.S. 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
an attack.

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