Iran Nuclear NewsBackup plans for Iran

Backup plans for Iran

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ImageWall Street Journal: As the White House's campaign to impose international sanctions against Iran extends months beyond deadlines, some U.S. officials are pushing for other options to curb Tehran's nuclear program. The Wall Street Journal

Gates Sought New Ways to Curb Tehran's Nuclear Program

By PETER SPIEGEL

ImageAs the White House's campaign to impose international sanctions against Iran extends months beyond deadlines, some U.S. officials are pushing for other options to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

In one of the clearest signs of the growing concern among top Obama officials over how the U.S. should respond to Iran's accelerating nuclear program, Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January wrote a three-page memo warning that the U.S. needed new policies to deal with Iran's progress toward developing a nuclear weapon.

According to a U.S. official who read the memo, it raised new concerns about how to verify if Iran had developed enough technology to build a nuclear bomb and how to contain Tehran if it became a nuclear power.

Mr. Gates's memo came amid rising concerns in the administration that time was running out for efforts to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Senior U.S. officials have been engaged in a debate about whether to push for tough sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council—which have faced opposition from countries such as China—or to go for a quick U.N. resolution with limited effectiveness.

The Gates memo, the existence of which was reported Sunday by the New York Times, sent ripples through the upper reaches of the administration, according to the U.S. official. "Did it stir up a bunch of new meetings and PowerPoint presentations? No," said the U.S. official. "But a memo from the secretary of defense about anything carries weight, and I think the Gates memo had the desired effect."

The White House over the weekend said Mr. Gates's classified analysis hasn't prompted a rethink within the administration over how to deal with Iran. "It is absolutely false that any memo touched off a reassessment of our options," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama. "The administration has been planning for all contingencies regarding Iran for many months," Mr. Rhodes said.

In a statement issued Sunday, Mr. Gates said his memo was intended to outline new policy decisions that must be taken in light of the administration's move to "a pressure track" following Iran's rejection of a U.S.-backed compromise that would have frozen Iran's enrichment program.

"The memo was not intended as a 'wake up call' or received as such by the president's national security team," Mr. Gates said. "It presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision-making process."

The need to give Mr. Obama more options for dealing with Iran emerged before Mr. Gates issued his memo, addressed to National Security Adviser James Jones. In his December guidance to his staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directed them to prepare military options for the White House should Mr. Obama require them.

Navy Capt. John Kirby, Adm. Mullen's spokesman, said the guidance was directed at Adm. Mullen's staff, and not the White House. "It was not—and should not—be construed as a message to the White House or anyone else that Iran policy was in need of more attention," Capt. Kirby said.

Adm. Mullen, speaking Sunday at Columbia University in New York, reiterated that military options were still on the table, but said he continued to believe a strike on Iran could have "unintended consequences" and destabilize the region.

The U.S. has been pushing for tough sanctions against Iran, but such a move would likely require extended negotiations, since China has long resisted such measures, only joining negotiations on this issue this month. Those pushing for more-limited sanctions argue that the U.S. and the European Union could follow quickly with more-severe sanctions on their own.

Mr. Gates alluded to that path in remarks last week during a visit to Peru, where he suggested that he supported a quick move to get rudimentary sanctions through the U.N. so that others could take firmer action.

"I think what is important about the U.N. resolution in many respects is less the specific content than the isolation of Iran by the rest of the world," Mr. Gates told reporters.

"A U.N. Security Council resolution provides a new platform, if you will, a new legal platform for individual countries and organizations, such as the European Union, to impose much more stringent, specific sanctions."

Mr. Gates is not alone in this view. The same day, William Burns, the No. 3 official at the State Department, told a congressional hearing that he believed that the U.N. resolution would clear the way for the EU and other countries to "amplify the impact" of whatever U.N. sanctions are agreed to.

Mr. Burns said that even without a new U.N. resolution, some of Europe's largest and most important oil and financial institutions—including energy groups ENI and Total as well as financial giants Allianz, HSBC and Deutsche Bank—have already pulled their business out of Iran.

—Jay Solomon and Yochi Dreazen contributed to this article.

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