Monday 10 December 2007

Gates Says Iran Remains a Threat

MANAMA, Bahrain — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Saturday that Iran is a grave threat to regional security even without nuclear weapons, and called on Tehran to account for American intelligence that describes its support for terrorism and instability around the world.

Just days after Iran claimed political victory after a new American intelligence assessment found that Tehran had frozen its nuclear weapons program, Mr. Gates said Iran could restart those efforts at any time and must come clean about its efforts to build a bomb.

In a speech to a conference on regional security here, Mr. Gates dismissed those who suggested that the United States had a double standard on nuclear arms in the Middle East and that a nuclear-armed Israel was the real danger. He said that, unlike Iran, Israel had never threatened to destroy a neighbor.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made aggressive comments toward Israel, including a call in 2005 for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

Mr. Gates mocked Iran’s praise of a new National Intelligence Estimate as a “watershed” — the first time Tehran has accepted the conclusions of American spy agencies. As the audience chuckled, Mr. Gates said Iran’s approval of the American intelligence estimate required it to accept other assessments of its behavior.

“Since that government now acknowledges the quality of American intelligence assessments,” Mr. Gates said, “I assume that it will also embrace as valid American intelligence assessments of its funding and training of militia groups in Iraq, its deployment of lethal weapons and technology to both Iraq and Afghanistan, its ongoing support of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas that have murdered thousands of innocent civilians and its continued research and development of medium-range ballistic missiles that are not particularly cost-effective unless equipped with warheads carrying weapons of mass destruction.”

The National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had a secret nuclear arms program, but that it halted the effort in 2003. The response from Tehran was to describe the report as America’s confession of a mistake.

The defense secretary has consistently said that diplomatic and economic pressure should be the first choice to halt Iranian nuclear ambitions, and that military action should remain a last resort. His statements are softer than those of President Bush, who as recently as October invoked images of World War III to warn of the Iranian threat.

But, as would be expected of a former director of central intelligence, Mr. Gates said Iran “cannot pick and choose” only the American intelligence it likes.

He said the estimate “is explicit that Iran is keeping its options open and could restart its nuclear weapons program at any time — I would add, if it has not done so already.”

The speech captured the same tone of calibrated irony that Mr. Gates used in response to a caustic address delivered by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to a regional security conference in Munich in February. Yet Mr. Gates was blunt in his assessments of Iranian action to provoke violence and instability around the world.

“There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing,” he said.

An Iranian delegation was invited to the conference, but organizers said no officials from Tehran were in attendance.

In comments to reassure Persian Gulf partners that may fear American isolationism after the Iraq war, Mr. Gates emphasized Washington’s commitment to the region, and pressed for an area-wide missile defense system and increased cooperation on local waterways to counter terrorism, piracy, narcotics trafficking and smuggling.

He encouraged Gulf nations to move beyond bilateral relations with the United States in countering Iran, and offered as fertile areas of cooperation “shared early warning, cooperative air and missile defense, and maritime security awareness.” He urged allies to develop regional air and missile defense systems.

To underscore the importance of the regional dialogue, the American delegation to this year’s conference, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, included for the first time the defense secretary; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Adm. William J. Fallon, the senior commander of American forces in the Middle East.

“The United States remains committed to defending its vital interests and those of its allies in Iraq and in the wider Middle East,” Mr. Gates said.

During a lively question-and-answer period, Mr. Gates was pressed on whether the United States had a double standard in organizing the world community to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons but not working to disarm Israel.

“Israel is not training terrorists to subvert its neighbors, it has not shipped weapons to a place like Iraq to kill thousands of civilians, it has not threatened to destroy any of its neighbors, it is not trying to destabilize the government of Lebanon,” Mr. Gates said.

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