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CNN: Defense Sec. Gates on Diplomacy, Possible Sanctions on Iran

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Sunday, September 27, 2009; 11:56 AM

JOHN KING (Host): We learned as the week came to an end about a new underground secret Iranian nuclear bunker, and the president described it this way. "The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."

Tell us more about what we know, and do you have any doubt Iran was using this facility or planned to use this facility to develop nuclear weapons?

DEFENSE SEC. ROBERT GATES: We've been watching the construction of this facility for quite some time, and one of the reasons that we waited to make it public was to ensure that our conclusions about its purpose were right. This is information shared among ourselves, the British, the French, as we've gone along. And I think that, certainly, the intelligence people have no doubt that this is an illicit nuclear facility, if only because the Iranians kept it a secret. If they wanted it for peaceful nuclear purposes, there's no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time.

KING: Take me back in time. You say you've known about it for some time, dating back into the Bush administration. You, of course, were serving in the Bush administration. How far back?

GATES: Well, it's hard for me to remember, but at least a couple of years we've been watching it.

KING: At least a couple of years. Because the former vice president, Dick Cheney, is on record as saying in the closing months of the administration, he was an advocate for possibly using military action against some of these Iranian sites. Was this one of his targets, this area we've just learned about?

GATES: Well, I think I'll just let his statement speak for itself.

KING: All right. We know -- and correct me if I'm wrong, please -- that you were skeptical about that, in fact, opposed to that. You didn't think that was the way to go. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said publicly many times how skeptical he is about the military options here. I just want you to help an American out there who says, we can't trust Ahmadinejad, this has been going on for years. We don't think sanctions will work. Why don't we do something about it? Explain to that person out there, whether they work in the United States Congress or whether it's just an average American, when you look at the contingencies that you have available to you and the president has available to him, are there any good military options when it comes to these deep underground facilities?

GATES: Well, without getting into any specifics, I would just say we obviously don't take any options off the table.

My view has been that there has been an opportunity through the use of diplomacy and economic sanctions to persuade the Iranians to change their approach to nuclear weapons.

The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so. And the only way you end up not having a nuclear capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened.

So I think, as I say, while you don't take options off the table, I think there's still room left for diplomacy. The P5 plus 1 will be meeting with Iran here shortly. The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers. And there obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions. And I think we have the time to make that work.

KING: I want to get to that diplomacy in just a minute, but when you shared this intelligence with others, I want to ask you specifically about the case of Israel, which you know in the past has been very skeptical about the diplomatic route. And many have thought perhaps Israel would take matters into its own hands because it is in the neighborhood. What did the Israeli government, specifically the Israeli military, say when they learned of this intelligence, about this new second facility?

GATES: Well, Israel, obviously, thinks of the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. We've obviously been in close touch with them, as our ally and friend, and continue to urge them to let this diplomatic and economic sanctions path play out.

KING: And as that goes forward, President Sarkozy was quite skeptical and he was very clear, this year, December, he wants to see progress or else we'll see tougher sanctions. From your perspective, what sanctions would have the most teeth, would work?

GATES: Well, there are a variety of options still available, including sanctions on banking, particularly sanctions on equipment and technology for their oil and gas industry. I think there's a pretty rich list to pick from, actually.

KING: If you look at that list, though, in some of those cases, you'll find the suppliers, gasoline, imports, some of the equipment and technology would be China, would you not?

GATES: China's participation is clearly important. KING: And the early indications are they will or won't help?

GATES: Well, I haven't had -- I haven't had an opportunity to talk to the president or those who were with him in Pittsburgh, so I don't know the nature of the conversations that they had with the Chinese there, but I do have the sense that the Chinese take this pretty seriously.

KING: Let me ask you about the situation in Iran, as this diplomacy goes forward. You're the defense secretary now. You have been the director of Central Intelligence. When you look at post- election Iran, all the talk of turmoil, reports of tension between Ahmadinejad and the clerics, Ahmadinejad and the reforms, is the water bubbling or is the water boiling in the sense that you just see trouble or do you see potential seeds of revolution?

GATES: Well, I guess I would say it's simmering. It's clear in the aftermath of the election, that there are some fairly deep fissures in Iranian society and politics, and probably even in the leadership. And frankly, this is one of the reasons why I think additional and especially severe economic sanctions could have some real impact, because we know that the sanctions that have already been placed on the country have had an impact. The unemployment among youth is about 40 percent. They have some real serious problems, especially with the younger people.

So I think that we are seeing some changes or some divisions in the Iranian leadership and in society that we really haven't seen in the 30 years since the revolution.

KING: And if you think sanctions work and this is a clear violation -- they hid this from the world, they hid this from everybody, in clear violation of their commitments -- why wait? Why not slap tougher sanctions now? Why wait until the end of the year?

GATES: Well, the opportunity exists in the October 1st meeting and over the next few weeks to see if we can leverage publicizing this additional illegal facility and activity to leverage the Iranians to begin to make some concessions, to begin to abide by the U.N. Security Council resolutions.


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