An Israeli or American attack against Iran’s nuclear program has the potential to be a counterproductive geopolitical disaster, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the 58th Annual Seminar and Exhibits in Philadelphia Wednesday.
“The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world,” Gates, currently chancellor of The College of William and Mary, told the audience of security professionals.
Over the past few months, there has been significant discussion coming out of Israel, from both hawks and doves, that the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would launch military strikes against Iran in hopes of stopping Tehran from joining the nuclear club.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu criticized the international community for its stance on Iran’s nuclear program, telling a press conference: “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel. Netanyahu’s comments, according to The Washington Post, were deliberately aimed at the Obama administration after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday that Washington would not set deadlines for Iran to abandon its presumed attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful use only. If Israel does strike Iran, the attack would not achieve its objective, Gates said.
“The Israeli military, however formidable, does not have the capacity to destroy all the buried nuclear facilities at such long range,” he said, noting the Iranians dispersed their nuclear program to many sites, some in urban areas and some deep underground, after watching Israel destroy Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.
Gates said the best an Israeli attack on Iran would achieve is delaying the regime’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. The attack would also worsen the United States’ image in the Gulf as the region’s governments and peoples would believe that Washington sanctioned and financed the attack.
In response to an Israeli attack, Iran would continue its nuclear program while its people, deeply unhappy with its government, would “rally around the mullahs,” according to Gates.
While Iran has no military capacity capable of directly threatening the United States, the regime in Tehran could do significant harm to U.S. national security interests. Gates warned that Iran could disrupt global oil supplies by attacking oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and “launch a wave of terror across the Middle East and potentially here at home as well.” The regime would also attempt to create instability in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.
Nevertheless, Gates believes a nuclear-armed Iran would be a “catastrophe of a different sort.” It could destroy Israel and would likely threaten Europe as its missile technology progressed while igniting “a nuclear-arms race in the most volatile region in the world.”
In an interview with Security Management after his speech, Gates argued nuclear deterrence would not work with the Iranian regime, which he considers “irrational.”
Gates believes the current strategy of sanctions is the appropriate way to deal with Iran for the time being.