By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 10:30 PM
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, reiterating his long-standing opposition to a military attack on Iran, said Tuesday that new sanctions led by the Obama administration are causing divisions within the Iranian leadership.
Sanctions "have really bitten much harder than [Iranian leaders] anticipated," Gates told the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, citing indications that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in trouble with the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"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," Gates said.
Gates, who has repeatedly warned against military strikes on Tehran's nuclear facilities, said, "I personally believe they are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, but also the information that we have is that they've been surprised by the impact of the sanctions."
Republican lawmakers in recent weeks have stepped up their rhetoric on Iran, demanding that President Obama make more direct threats to use military force against the Islamic republic. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also pressed the administration to be more direct.
Although by many accounts the sanctions have been unexpectedly effective, the Iranian government has not indicated that it is interested in negotiating a solution to the standoff.
Iran has repeatedly denied that it is pursuing nuclear weapons. But it has stockpiled enough low-enriched uranium that it could - in a risky dash under cover - enrich enough to weapons grade to claim nuclear-weapons capability.
Although the Obama administration has stressed its interest in negotiations, some administration officials and advisers privately said the president would not hesitate to use military force to set back Iran's nuclear program if the country appeared to be on the verge of acquiring such capability. Obama is committed to eliminating nuclear weapons eventually - and to strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty - and thus officials think he would act, even militarily, to prevent such a breach in the international system.
But Gates argued Tuesday that military strikes are just a "short-term solution" that would only make Iran's nuclear program "deeper and more covert."
He said they would also unify the Iranian people around an increasingly unpopular government and would "bring together a divided nation; it will make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons."
"The only long-term solution to avoiding an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it's not in their interest," Gates said. "Everything else is a short-term solution - is a two- to three-year solution."
The Pentagon chief also took aim at some of the recommendations of the co-chairmen of Obama's commission on reducing the deficit.
Although Gates is seeking to save $100 billion over the next five years through a variety of measures, including the discontinuance of ineffective programs, he wants to apply the savings to military modernization. The commission's co-chairmen instead want to put any savings toward deficit reduction.
Gates said the proposals would be "catastrophic" to national security, resulting in little real savings while greatly harming the military.
"The truth of the matter is when it comes to the deficit, the Department of Defense is not the problem," he said. "I think in terms of the specifics they came up with, that is math, not strategy."