US shifts its rhetoric on Iran

Over the Father’s Day weekend, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace to discuss the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the course of the interview, Wallace brought up the new UN sanctions regimen on Iran:

WALLACE: The U.N. Security Council has passed another round of sanctions against Iran. And following up on that, the United States and the European Union have imposed a set of unilateral sanctions. For all that, honestly, do you see any sign that these sanctions, these efforts, have caused any weakening of the will of the regime in Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon?

GATES: Actually, what we’ve seen is a change in the nature of the regime in Tehran over the past 18 months or so. You have – you have a much narrower based government in Tehran now. Many of the religious figures are being set aside. As Secretary Clinton has said, they appear to be moving more in the direction of a military dictatorship. Khamenei is leaning on a smaller and smaller group of advisors. In the meantime, you have an illegitimate election that has divided the country. So I think adding economic pressures on top of that, and particularly targeted economic pressures, has real potential.

WALLACE: Do you think it could weaken the will of the regime in Tehran?

GATES: I think that it could add to the pressures on the regime, that if you add the things we’re doing to help our allies in the gulf area improve their defenses, improve their military capabilities, you put that together with sanctions, you put that together with diplomatic pressures and a variety of other things that are going on – and I think – I think you have a reasonable chance of getting the Iranian regime finally to come to their senses and realize their security is probably more endangered by going forward, thereby…

WALLACE: Can we contain a nuclear Iran?

GATES: I don’t think we’re prepared to even talk about containing a nuclear Iran. I think we’re – we – our view still is we do not accept the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons. And our policies and our efforts are all aimed at preventing that from happening.

WALLACE: When you say that a – we would not accept a nuclear Iran, does that mean that a military strike either by the U.S. or Israel is preferable to a nuclear Iran?

GATES: I – we obviously leave all options on the table. I think we have some time to continue working this problem.

The Gates interview and recent statements by Secretary of State Clinton show that the Obama administration is adding a layer of ideological rhetoric to the more pragmatic approach used so far to explain why it opposes a nuclear Iran. In addition to stressing the security threat Tehran poses to the region and to US allies and interests, the administration is now arguing that a nuclear-armed Iran is dangerous because of its illiberal form of government.

This rhetoric marks an interesting shift. President Obama has hitherto prided himself on exercising a pragmatic foreign policy with the Islamic Republic. With the introduction of these subtle, yet clearly ideological statements on the part of Clinton and Gates, we may also see a shift in how this administration seeks to combat Iranian hegemony around the globe. This may not be the same as Bush-era “Axis of Evil” rhetoric, but it does show the constancy of the values that underlay American foreign policy.

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