By Glenn Kessler
Saturday, December 12, 2009; A08
KIRKUK, IRAQ -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that world powers will soon impose "significant additional sanctions" on Iran over its failure to engage in talks on its nuclear ambitions.
Gates, speaking to a group of about 300 U.S. troops in northern Iraq during a week-long tour of war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, played down the prospect of military action against the Islamic republic.
"There are no good options in Iran," he said, in response to a query from a soldier about the likelihood of such a development. "One of the things that weighs on me is that if we have learned anything from Iraq over the past six years, [it] is the inherent unpredictability of war."
The Obama administration is considering a package of sanctions that would target Iran's military and political elite, but Gates signaled that some of the sanctions could also affect ordinary Iranians. He said that "a package of incentives and disincentives" would be needed "to persuade the Iranian government that they would actually be less secure with nuclear weapons" because "their people will suffer enormously" from sanctions.
In a statement Friday by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, the administration joined European leaders in warning that Iran will face "credible" consequences if it does not bring its nuclear program into full compliance with the U.N. Security Council and its nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran insists that it wants to develop nuclear expertise only for peaceful purposes. In talks in Geneva on Oct. 1, it indicated that it would return to talks on restraining its nuclear program and agree to give up a substantial portion of its stockpile of enriched uranium in exchange for desperately needed fuel for a medical research reactor.
The administration has pushed for such an agreement as a way to build confidence between the two sides and to buy time for negotiations. But since then, Iran appears to have walked away from the tentative deals -- in part, experts say, because the Iranian leadership is divided over whether to engage with the United States.
"Frankly, Iran's stiffing the international community on some of the proposals that they actually agreed to at the beginning of October, I think, has brought the international community, including the Russians and the Chinese, together in a way that they have not been in terms of significant additional sanctions on the Iranians," Gates said.
President Obama has set a Dec. 31 deadline for Iran to respond to the proposals before he turns to reviewing other options, including pursuing what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton once called "crippling sanctions."
In a statement issued in New York, Iran's mission to the United Nations denounced what it called "baseless and unfounded allegations" Thursday by some Security Council members about Iran's nuclear activities and said it is willing to continue talks with the United States and five other world powers "in order to achieve an appropriate, long-term solution."
Gates, who was to return to Washington late Friday, met in the morning with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before flying to Iraq's oil-rich Kurdish region for meetings with troops in Kirkuk and Kurdish officials in Irbil. Tensions remain high between the Kurds and Iraq's Arab majority, particularly over boundaries, property rights and revenue-sharing. Gates urged both sides to reduce the potential for conflict to prevent any delays in U.S. plans to cut the number of American troops from 115,000 to 50,000 by the end of August.
Gates also sought to allay Kurdish anxiety about the pending drawdown. U.S. officials quoted Gates as telling Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government: "We will preserve your security, prosperity and autonomy within a unified Iraq. We will not abandon you."
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.