A transcript will be released later, and it will offer more depth about US Defense Secretary Robert Gates' thinking on Iran's nuclear program, but the AFP article released early points to two of his statements that are interesting:
"I'd just say, and it's our judgment here, they are not nuclear capable," Gates said in an interview. "Not yet."I argue that in a practical strategic sense, Iran is nuclear weapons capable, has been nuclear capable for months and has had an ability to become nuclear capable without plausible options for the US to stop Iran from reaching that status since mid-2007 at the very latest. Which is to say that if there is any fault for allowing Iran to become nuclear capable, it does not actually belong with the current US administration.
Speaking to NBC's "Meet the Press," Gates said that Iran was "continuing to make progress" in a nuclear program that Washington suspects is a clandestine effort to develop an atomic arsenal.
"It's going slower... than they anticipated. But they are moving in that direction," he said.
In any plausible scenario, Iran will not be suddenly faced with a situation where having an option to produce a weapon will be decisive on an issue of importance to Iran. In the year or so it takes for a crisis to develop, Iran has options - that the US cannot prevent - when it notices tensions or hostilities increasing, to put itself into a position from which it can make nuclear weapons as the situation progresses, even without leaving or violating any reasonable interpretation of the NPT.
Gates says Iran is not nuclear capable for two reasons: Israel still has not publicly come to accept that it will have to proceed from now on without a regional monopoly of nuclear capability and the United States has no way to reverse Iran's nuclear capability, so denying it exists is a way to justify the fact that the US can not take tangible action against it.
The next interesting excerpt from the interview is that Gates and the Obama administration, including Obama, are far more up front with their policy of conflating nuclear weapons capability with actual nuclear weapons.
Asked to compare the danger posed by Iran armed with an atomic bomb or with the ability to produce one, Gates said: "How far have they gone? If their policy is to go (to) the threshold, but not assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell that they have not assembled?How do you tell they have not assembled? Well, there is this treaty called the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. Gates likely has heard of it. That treaty is how South Korea knows that Japan has not assembled, even though Japan is nuclear capable. That treaty is how Argentina knows Brazil has not assembled. That treaty is how Germany knows the Netherlands have not assembled. More? That treaty is how Angola knows South Africa has not assembled.
"So, it becomes a serious verification question."
That's what the Non-Proliferation Treaty is, especially the safeguards agreement at the heart of the agreement. A way to ensure that the fissile material in a country is not diverted to assemble a weapon. Iran could leave the treaty in an emergency, but as long as Iran remains in the treaty, there is no reasonable question that Iran has not actually built a weapon.
The strategy of the safeguards agreement, which is to keep track of all of the fissile material in the country with the idea that without fissile material, it is impossible to make a weapon, is sound. It would be impossible for any NPT member to amass the relatively huge quantities of uranium, plutonium or thorium required to make a weapon without detection. Certainly Iran could not. No nation ever has. No nation has ever even made a serious attempt to build a weapon while in the NPT. If there was a crisis, Iran would have to pull out of the treaty, that limits Israel's strategic options but it is not a verification problem.
Gates is lying, by that I mean being deliberately deceptive and misleading an audience less informed than he is. There is no issue with verification. The issue is that Israel cannot tolerate a neighbor with the capabilities of Japan, Brazil, the Netherlands, South Africa or the other dozens of nuclear capable countries in the world.
The United States, on Israel's behalf, is devoting a huge amount of resources to prevent Iran from reaching a status that is legal for NPT non-weapons signatories. Fortunately, Obama and Gates' efforts on that front seem now very unlikely to succeed. Instead, it looks like the current US strategy is to redefine "capability" so that no matter what Iran's program reaches, Iran is still not called nuclear capable and in the meantime basically wait - possibly with some degree of sanctions but not with any expectation that Iran's nuclear progress will be reversed.
EDIT: The complete transcript has been released. The earlier excerpts seem like fair representations of what was said. In the full transcript we see a fuller dynamic of Clinton making statements on foreign policy and Gates cleaning up after her.
Q Is a nuclear-capable Iran as dangerous as a nuclear state of Iran?And because I'm here again, I'm a little bothered by "slower than they anticipated" for two reasons. 1) Gates has no way of knowing what Iran anticipated and more importantly 2) Iran does not need a nuclear capability until there is a crisis, and probably until there is a crisis but there are not tens of thousands of vulnerable US troops in neighboring states. There is no problem with Iran's nuclear program moving forward slowly at this point.
SEC. CLINTON: Well, clearly, weapons are more dangerous than potential. Potential is troubling too.
Q Are they capable now?
SEC. CLINTON: They're -- you know, that's an issue upon which intelligence services still differ. But our goal is to prevent them from having nuclear weapons.
Q Secretary Gates, I want to ask you about --
SEC. GATES: I'd say that it's our judgment here --
SEC. GATES: -- they are not nuclear-capable.
Q They are not nuclear-capable.
SEC. GATES: Not yet.
Q And is that just as dangerous as being a nuclear state, to your mind?
SEC. GATES: 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? So it becomes a serious verification question. And I don't actually know how you would verify that.
So they are continuing to make progress on these programs. It's going slow -- slower than they anticipated, but they are moving in that direction.
On the other hand, if the US had anticipated that Iran would be approaching two tons of LEU by mid 2010, the US may have made better offers in 2006 and 2007 that could have forestalled this outcome.