In 2006, Robert Gates, a former CIA director and deputy national security adviser, replaced Donald Rumsfeld as George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. He then joined the Obama administration in the same role, before leaving office in 2011. During his tenure, he oversaw the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and influenced America’s response to the 2011 Arab uprisings. His views on Iran, perhaps more than on any other subject, have endured in policies that favor heavy sanctions and avoidance of military conflict. He published his memoir, Duty, in January.
“Having watched these guys since 1979,” Gates wrote to George W. Bush in 2008, “I believe…a military attack by either Israel or the United States will…guarantee that the Iranians will develop nuclear weapons, and seek revenge.” Iran, he had argued on an earlier occasion, did not meet the president’s own conditions for pre-emptive war, and a strike would isolate the United States, not Iran. He also advised Bush not to supply Israel with equipment that would enhance its ability to bomb nuclear sites, reasoning that such a move would make U.S. interests “hostage to another nation’s decisions.”
Gates saw Iran as familiar territory. In 1979, he had accompanied Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, to Algiers on America’s first, ill-starred engagement effort with post-revolutionary Iran. In 1980, he worked for CIA director Stansfield Turner, and was in the White House on the night of the “humiliating” failed attempt—Operation Eagle Claw—to rescue American hostages. He recalls (with dearth of irony) the Reagan administration’s “ruthlessly realistic” approach to the Iran-Iraq War, whereby “we provided modest covert support to both sides.” In 1987 he withdrew from confirmation as director of central intelligence because of “unanswered questions” about his proximity to the Iran-Contra affairs.
With Brzezinski in 2004, he published a report, Iran: Time for a New Approach. A US military presence on Iran’s eastern and western borders, they wrote, “might offer incentives for a mutually beneficial dialogue.” They advocated “selective diplomatic engagement,” withdrawal of objections to Iran’s civil nuclear program in exchange for safeguards, and, in light of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, abandonment of the language of regime change. But by the time Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley approached him to join the administration in October 2005, Gates had abandoned many of his recommendations, and Hadley had never even heard of the report.
Gates address readers in familiar, anecdotal tones. His description of the foreign affairs scene into which Bush sought to recruit him as a “category-five shitstorm” is compelling, since his main task was to set out strategies to save the American mission in Iraq. Iraq was the leading topic when he first discussed his appointment with Bush, and he mentions Iran only cursorily in his account of the meeting. Dick Cheney, the administration’s Iran hawk, had opposed Bush’s decision to replace Rumsfeld. Senator Carl Levin warned Gates at his confirmation hearing that Iran was “aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons.” Senators James Bunning and Rick Santorum voted against him because they didn’t think he was “aggressive enough” on the Iran question.
U.S. policies toward Iraq and Iran were, in any case, entangled. The military told Gates early in his tenure of Iran’s “increasingly lethal and malign influence” in Iraq. When he first visited Baghdad, Sunni leaders told him Iran increased its support of extremists whenever U.S.-Iranian tensions lit up over the nuclear issue. Shia leaders, too, complained that Iran was interfering. Saleh-Al Mutlaq, a Kurdish activist, said Iran wanted Iraq weak and saw U.S. troops as hostages. Gates reflects upon the Bush administration’s “major miscalculation” as to “how broken Iraq was before the war” citing both the effects of Iran-Iraq War and sanctions, albeit without much sense of historical resonance.
Some in Washington (and elsewhere) embraced Gates as a figure of circumspection, and Gates finds opportunities to present himself as the cool cat in various rooms. Although he recently told the BBC’s HARDtalk that neither Bush nor Obama came close to striking Iran, and that Dick Cheney (who wanted to “deal with the Iranian nuclear program before Bush left office”) was “an outlier,” Bush did ask him to keep the prospect in mind. Gates’s arguments with Cheney came to define the tactics with which western powers now confront Iran; his wish to “significantly increase their economic problems,” as part of a “long-term solution,” came half way true.
Although he reflects upon bad memories of American presidents’ attempts to engage Iran since 1979, Gates embraced Barack Obama’s outreach “because I thought that when it failed—as I believed it would—we could be in a much stronger position to get…significantly stricter economic sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council.” The Obama administration's support for engagement waned temporarily in response to repression following Iran’s 2009 elections. Gates was among those who—relying on CIA and State Department “experts”—thought that forthright American support for the Green Movement would be used against protestors, though he now thinks “we could and should have done more, at least rhetorically.”
Obama’s engagement efforts, Gates writes, “scared the hell out of the Israelis.” Gates, though friendly with Israeli Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, and quick to reassure Israel by tightening military and intelligence links, never warmed to Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed he unearths an unsettling memory of Netanyahu arguing that that the Green Movement presented a suitable moment upon which to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, an act he claimed would inspire Iranians to overthrow the regime. Surprising to those acquainted with Netanyahu’s public remarks on Iran will be his argument (paraphrased by Gates) that retaliation for such bombing would be “pro forma” because “the Iranians were realists.”
Gates is capable of putting a cinematic sheen on American muscle, and on his own. He turns a 2007 encounter with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, in particular, into a Dirty Harry moment. Chain-smoking in a room full of floor-to-ceiling shark-filled aquaria, portly Abdullah demanded “a full scale military attack on Iranian military targets, not just the nuclear sites,” and said the Saudis would “go our own way” if it didn’t happen. Gates retorted that U.S. forces were not Abdullah’s mercenaries, and that restraint was America’s “great strength because we could crush any adversary.” He honed the point by listing enemies, from Imperial Germany to the Soviet Union, now “in the ashcan of history.” Abdullah later referred to the night Gates “turned the table over.”
Elsewhere Gates appears less bold. His hesitation to endorse the raid to kill Osama bin Laden was informed by the trauma of Eagle Claw, an endeavor that left eight Americans dead in Iran. The “Arab Revolution,” as he calls the 2011 uprisings, put him in mind of the overthrow of the shah. He writes that “the history of revolutions” from France to Iran “is not a happy one,” and this view appears to have guided his disinclination to intervene in Libya, as well as his too-lightly qualified support for the Bahrain monarchy. The “major exception,” he contends, was the American Revolution, which prospered because George Washington “rejected a proffered crown.” Well, Ruhollah Khomeini never did that, but Gates tells us that his ghost still chills the halls of American power.