David Blair – Telegraph.co.uk May 1, 2009
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations committee, Mr Gates outlined the central objection to using force to halt Iran's nuclear programme.
All of the country's known nuclear installations, notably the crucial uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, could in principle be destroyed. But the Iranian regime would eventually be able to rebuild them - and it would almost certainly do so without admitting the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who presently monitor Iran's most important nuclear plants.
A military strike would only delay Iran's nuclear programme, while the regime's resolve to build a weapon, if it so chooses, may only be hardened.
"Even a military attack will only buy us time and send the programme deeper and more covert," said Mr Gates, during the hearing on Thursday.
The attitude of Iran's regime was, he added, the crucial factor. Mr Gates said that America's key aim should be to make clear to Tehran that developing a nuclear arsenal was not in Iran's own interests.
"Their security interests are actually badly served by trying to have nuclear weapons. They will start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and they will be less secure at the end than they are now," said Mr Gates.
If Iran were to acquire a nuclear bomb, rival powers in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would probably follow suit. Since Iran began enriching uranium on a large scale in 2006, 13 countries across the Middle East have embarked on nuclear energy projects.
While all these programmes are civilian - and there is no question of any safeguards being breached so far - experts believe the nations concerned may be keeping their future options open.
Mr Gates, who became defence secretary under the Bush administration in 2006 and was reappointed by President Barack Obama, has previously made clear his opposition to striking Iran.
In 2007, he told a private meeting of Congressmen that bombing Iran would "create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America," according to the New Yorker.
Mr Obama has chosen diplomatic and economic pressure to persuade Iran to refrain from developing nuclear weapons. In particular, five United Nations Resolutions have urged Tehran to stop enriching uranium.
This process could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium: the crucial component of a nuclear weapon. In February, Iran had produced almost a ton of low-enriched uranium, according to the IAEA.
Experts believe the country could produce enough weapons-grade material for one nuclear bomb by the end of next year.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the new Israeli prime minister, has described a nuclear-armed Iran as the greatest threat to world peace. Mr Gates may also be trying to dissuade Israel from launching a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear plants.
Last updated 07/05/2009