Reuters: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday questioned whether the United States could have productive talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without first stepping up pressure on Tehran.
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, May 20 (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday questioned whether the United States could have productive talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without first stepping up pressure on Tehran.
Gates, who a week ago spoke publicly in support of enhanced U.S.-Iranian engagement, said Washington may have had an opportunity to open useful discussions with Iran in 2003 and 2004 while the country was governed by the less hard-line Mohammad Khatami.
"But what we have now is a resurgence of the original hard-line views of the Islamic revolutionaries," Gates said in response to lawmaker questions at a Senate defense appropriations hearing.
Gates' comments came at a time when dealing with Iran has become a central issue in the November presidential election campaign.
"The question is: do you have the kind of government in Iran now with whom there can be productive discussions on substantive issues? And I think that's an open question," Gates said.
"The key here is developing leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures on the Iranian government, so that they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us, and that is, the relief of the pressure," he said.
His testimony coincides with a political sparring match between Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama and Republican John McCain over Obama's stated readiness to talk to Ahmadinejad and other U.S. adversaries if elected president.
President George W. Bush ignited a political firestorm on the issue with a May 15 speech to the Israeli parliament in which he said talking to "terrorists and radicals" was akin to appeasing Nazi Germany.
Democrats and some Republicans interpreted Bush's comments as being aimed at Obama, prompting critics to note Republican President Ronald Reagan's readiness to talk to the Soviet Union while decrying the communist state as "the Evil Empire."
"We have seen the president's comment about appeasement with terrorists. But if we do not have dialogue with Iran … we're missing a great opportunity to avoid a future conflict," Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania told Gates.
Gates said at a diplomatic forum last week that the United States needed to develop "leverage" over the Iranians "and then sit down and talk with them." His remarks raised questions about a possible conflict with Bush's position.
But on Tuesday, he refused to be drawn in by Specter on Bush and Iran: "I don't know exactly what the president said. I believe he said it was appeasement to talk to terrorists."
He also asserted that past success in talks with U.S. adversaries such as the Soviet Union has been accompanied by pressure from Washington, including Reagan's massive arms buildup against the Soviets in the early 1980s.
A former CIA director with a long career in international affairs, Gates said the Bush administration may have had the chance for productive talks with Tehran in 2003 and 2004 after the U.S. military had toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, both neighbors of Iran.
"The Iranians clearly were very concerned about what we might do next in 2003 and 2004, and you did have a different government there," the U.S. defense chief said.
"The administration was in fact having talks with the Iranians at that time on a wide range of issues. And I have forgotten why those talks were called off. That may have been an opportunity."
Under questioning by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Gates refused to say definitively that the United States lost an opportunity to engage Iran.
"The honest answer is I really don't know," he said. "It's a matter for the historians." (Editing by David Wiessler)