Former defence secretary Robert Gates isn’t optimistic that the landmark July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran will lead the country to halt any of its disruptive policies in the Middle East or its support for terrorist groups.
In an interview with Business Insider, Gates, who spent nearly 27 years in the CIA and the only cabinet secretary to have served under both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, said that he didn’t believe the nuclear deal would have a moderating impact on Iranian behaviour or lead Tehran to become a more responsible international actor.
“The notion that betting that this regime is going to temper its behaviour in the region because of this nuclear deal I think is mistaken,” Gates told Business Insider.
“I think that will not happen.”
In the six months since the nuclear deal was reached, Iran has tested two nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, fired live missiles within 1500 yards of a US aircraft carrier, and continued its support for the Assad regime in Syria and for Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
At the same time, Iran agreed to a prisoner swap with the US that secured the freedom of 5 US citizens detained in Iran in exchange for the US dropping charges against seven Iranians accused of violating sanctions against the country and removing several regime-linked officials from Interpol’s “red notice” list.
Iran also quickly freed 10 US sailors detained in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf on January 12th (although not before propaganda images of the captive troops were broadcast on Iranian state media).
Overall, Gates doesn’t think that Iran’s long-term behaviour will change that much after the nuclear deal, or that the deal can overcome the now 36-year-old regime’s religiously motivated ideology or temper its regional ambitions.
“This is a country that has a long history under the revolutionary government,” says Gates.
He recalled his involvement in “very first official us meeting” with members of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s government, when US national security advisor Zbignew Brzezinski met with high-ranking regime officials in Algiers, Algeria just three days before the 1979 US embassy seizure.
“As I like to tell people, that began my now more than three-decades long quest for the elusive Iranian moderate,” says Gates.
Gates also doesn’t expect Iran’s geopolitical objectives to change as the result of the nuclear deal. He told Business Insider that he believes Iran will still harbour ambitions of building a nuclear weapon even as the deal is implemented.
“My view is that the belief that Iran over time is going to evolve into a regular nation state and abandon its theological revolutionary underpinnings its aspirations in the region or even its aspirations for nuclear weapons is unrealistic,” Gates told Business Insider.
Under the nuclear agreement, Iran agreed to never “seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons.” On one of hte agreement’s most important points, Gates isn’t quite willing to take Tehran as its word.
Gates actually urged members of Congress to vote to implement the deal during the runup to the September 2015 deadline for congressional review of the agreement, arguing that the consequences of cancelling the accord after its completion outweighed the risks of implementing it.
But he still criticised the deal’s provisions, stating that the US had gotten “out-negotiated,” and calling the deal “flawed.”
In an interview with Business Insider, Gates raised the possibility that US negotiators did not secure as strong a deal as possible.
“The administration told us through April of last year that they had to have anywhere, anytime inspections,” says Gates in reference to the possible degree of access international inspectors would hae to sensitive Iranian nuclear sites over the life of the agreement. “That was given up in the deal so I worry about verification.”
“I’m not sure we couldn’t have gotten a better deal if we hadn’t been eager,” Gates added.
Gates’s suspicion of Iran’s long-term intentions stems in part from his experience overseeing the US campaign in Iraq as Pentagon chief. As secretary of defence, Gates was involved in a US war effort in which Iranian-backed militia groups were a consistent US military adversary.
If this is the case, Gates’s concerns might have been vindicated by last week’s kidnapping of three American contractors in Baghdad at the hands of an Iranian-linked Shi’ite militia group.
He also witnessed Iran’s attempts to meddle in Iraq’s internal politics during the closing years fo the Iraq War, after the US troop “surge” and the “Sunni awakening” succeeded in defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq and pacifying much of the country.
In his interview with Business Insider, Gates identified the strong-arm sectarian policies of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as one of the contributing factors to the rise of ISIS.
Maliki was closely identified with Tehran and was re-elected as prime minister in 2010 as the result of Iranian political manoeuvring. Gates might have difficulty investing too much confidence in a regime whose strategies he experienced first-hand during his years at the Pentagon.
Overall, Gates thinks the nuclear deal only creates a greater urgency for the US counterbalancing Iranian moves in the Middle East.
“It seems to me that agreement needs to be paralleled by a very aggressive American strategy of working with our allies, both Arab and Israeli in the region to counter Iranian meddling, support of terrorism and other activities,” Gates says.
“We need the same kind of strong-minded strategy in dealing with Iran in its behaviour in the region that other countries are looking for, and there’s no reason for that to be contradictory to the [nuclear agreement].”