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The New York Times on Sunday reported on a secret memo written by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January warning that the US has no long-term strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document.

As always, a lot has been written about this already, so I’ll only focus on one aspect of it that I think is important.  This bit about predicting Iran’s intentions:

But in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.

I’ve long argued that this option — the so-called “Japan option” — whereby Iran has a weapons capability but not an assembled, usable weapon, is what Iran actually wants.
The benefits are great and risks few: Iran would gain a large deterrent value by virtue of having a “breakout capability” where they could assemble a weapon quickly if need be; they would gain the prestige of having mastered nuclear technology; they would be emboldened in their regional and foreign policies because of the ambiguity surrounding their actual capabilities; and they could continue stressing that it is their right to produce nuclear technology under the NPT.
Contrast that with the downsides of actually trying to pursue a weapon: doing so in secret risks being caught (not unlikely, given the Qom revelation), which could lead to serious consequences; pursuing a weapon out in the open requires Iran to withdraw from the NPT, kick out inspectors, and re-jigger the countless religious edicts the Supreme Leader has issued declaring nuclear weapons anti-Islamic.
Not to mention: stopping short of an actual weapon allows Iran — in the event that the US, Israel, or someone else preemptively strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities — to justify pursuing a nuclear weapon as the only way to guarantee their security.  It’s the perfect excuse, and one that we should deny them.
But back to Gates’ memo.
The part about how most analysts consider a “Japan option” the most likely for Iran is actually a very big deal.  This means that the government recognizes that everyone’s favorite game — the one where you try to figure out how long Iran will take to build a bomb — doesn’t actually matter.  Whether it’s one year, five years, or more, it doesn’t matter if Iran is content to maintain nuclear latency.  Even if the dynamic between Iran and the international community doesn’t improve, the situation is manageable.
So even though the situation seems dire at the moment, (and not to underestimate the threat of war), the United States and Iran might not actually be doomed to clash militarily.
The truth is, containing a nuclear-latent Iran is a much more attractive option than having to contain a nuclear-armed Iran.  And there is a difference: one carries the risk of a nuclear detonation at any moment.  The other carries a risk of escalation to the point where a nuclear detonation becomes possible.
That small distinction could actually mean the difference between a US policy that is deemed a “failure” and one that “succeeds.”
The takeaway from all of this is that Gates’ memo puts the lie to all of those who claim that diplomacy and sanctions will not work against Iran, and that we have to face a choice between living with a nuclear Iran or a military attack.  The smartest people in the country — both inside and outside of government — believe that’s simply not true.
And I, for one, think that’s a relief.

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