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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Interview with Al Arabiya Broadcast

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
March 12, 2010
               (Note: Mr. Melhem's remarks are provided through an interpreter.) 
                MR. MELHEM: Concern over Iran's ambitions was one of your top priorities in Saudi and the UAE, where they share the same concern. How did you frame the new American policy vis-a-vis Iran? 
                SEC. GATES: The president's policy over the past year, of reaching out to Iran, was in the hope that the Iranians would respond positively and provide a way out of the current difficulties that the international community has with Iran. 
                As has become clear, the Iranians have rebuffed the initiatives of the president for a better relationship. By the same token, his policy of engagement has now exposed the Iranian regime, for what it is, and their unwillingness to try and find a negotiated outcome here. 
                And that creates the basis I think for widespread support for moving to greater pressure on Iran, in an effort to persuade its leaders to change course and to acknowledge that they will not pursue nuclear weapons. 
                I think that one of the benefits of the president's policy has been that it has contributed to very broad support in the international community as well as here in the region. 
                And that is the direction in which we are headed, for a new U.N. Security Council resolution, which in turn will provide a legal platform for individual countries that may wish to take more severe action, economic action. 
                MR. MELHEM: You said that these sanctions would be not directed towards the people but rather directed towards the regime. Can you explain how that would happen? 
                SEC. GATES: Well, I think, to the extent that we can, the sanctions should be focused on front companies and organizations that are basically owned by the leadership and by the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. 
                It's inevitable that there will be some consequence for the people. But to the extent we can, we want to try and put the pressure where we think it will do the most good and also the least harm to the Iranian people. 
                MR. MELHEM: You had a verbal duel with Ahmadinejad through the media. After you left Kabul, he said, what are you doing here, he asked. What do you respond? 
                SEC. GATES: What I respond is that the United States was attacked out of Afghanistan in 2001. Three thousand Americans were killed in a plot that was hatched by al Qaeda in Afghanistan. 
                We are there now to not only prevent al Qaeda from coming back and attacking not just the United States but others in the region. After all, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than it has Americans at this point, many more. 
                And we also want to try and give the Afghan people the right to govern themselves and to end conflict and develop their economy. And we have very broad international support for this. There are 44 nations contributing troops. We have the sanction of the United Nations. 
                So this is an effort both to help Afghanistan after 30 years of war but also to ensure that those who attacked the United States and who have launched attacks on other countries as well do not pose an international danger. 
                MR. MELHEM: You said you urged Saudi and the UAE to use their influence with China to change its opposition to sanctions. What did you hear back?
                SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, China has supported previous resolutions, either by voting for them or by abstaining. And so my hope is that -- that that will be the case. Clearly, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have very strong economic relationships with China, and it is our hope that they will make their views known to the Chinese government about the importance of these sanctions.
                MR. MELHEM: Are Saudis and the UAE expected to help with these -- only with these sanctions, resolutions? Or would you like them to play a broader role, to stop Iranian intervention in Iraq, Syria, Palestinian territories?
                SEC. GATES: Well, clearly, particularly both of these countries, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are deeply engaged in providing economic assistance and support for a number of governments here in the region. I think that they clearly can play a positive role in trying to counter Iranian as well as al Qaeda influence.
                Clearly, one area we would like to see is Saudi Arabia strengthening its relationship with Iraq, particularly now in the wake of the Iraqi elections. But both countries have great influence, and we know that they will use that influence for constructive purposes.
                MR. MELHEM: Economic sanctions rarely succeed, and when they do succeed, such as in South Africa and Libya, it takes a long time and -- because there was international support. Is there a limit for how long these sanctions' effectiveness can be tested?
                SEC. GATES: Well, I think, first of all, we are -- we have been gradually strengthening the sanctions now over a period of years. So it's not like we're just starting with sanctions on Iran at this point. There have been a number of sanctions in place since the middle of the -- of this decade.
                The key to success in sanctions is the nature of the goal of the sanctions, and also the breadth of support for the sanctions. The reason sanctions worked against Rhodesia and South Africa was that virtually all countries in the world supported them. There were very few who cheated. The -- in those cases, we were calling for systemic change, for a change in the nature of the governance.
                Our goals with respect to Iran are actually much more limited. These sanctions are not about changing the regime, but about persuading the regime to have a better understanding of its own security interests in this region and to pursue policies that build good relations with other countries rather than scare them.
                MR. MELHEM: Is there a specific time frame to test whether these sanctions are effective or not, or is this open-ended?
                SEC. GATES: I think -- I think that there clearly is a -- is a time frame for it, and it's tied to Iranian progress in developing their nuclear weapons. We think we have sufficient time for the -- for the sanctions to work at this point.
                MR. MELHEM: Is there a viable military option to stop Iran's nuclear program?
                SEC. GATES: Well, there are always a number of options on the table. Frankly, I think -- I think our focus ought to be on getting these sanctions and getting them in place.
                MR. MELHEM: Then you're not thinking of a military option?
                SEC. GATES: I think we'll focus on economic sanctions.
                MR. MELHEM: Can the U.S. live with a nuclear Iran the way it's living with a nuclear Pakistan and perhaps a nuclear North Korea?
                SEC. GATES: We do not accept the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons. And I would say, with reference to the previous question, that another aspect of our -- of our approach here in the region is to strengthen the ability of our friends to defend themselves. And our hope is that this, in addition to everything else, will have a deterrent effect and influence the Iranians.
                MR. MELHEM: The prevailing view in the Arab world is that the U.S. avoids talking about Israel's nuclear arsenal. Does this weaken the American campaign against the Iranian nuclear program morally and politically?
                SEC. GATES: Actually, I don't think so. This issue is rarely raised with me. And the reality is, people here in the region read their newspapers and watch their television. It's Iran that has threatened to destroy one of its neighbors, one of the other countries here in the -- here in the region. No other country in the Middle East has threatened to do that. That's why we need to focus our concerns on Iran.
                MR. MELHEM: Iraq: How do you see the elections in context of the U.S. timetable for withdrawal? Do you think it will accelerate it?
                SEC. GATES: I think we -- we have a timetable that we have agreed with the Iraqis, and the president has laid out that at the end of August our combat units will have withdrawn and we will have all of our troops out by the end of 2011. 
                We were immensely pleased and encouraged by the Iraqi elections. Our commander in Baghdad, General Odierno, told me that a turnout of 50 (percent) to 55 percent would be very good news, 55 (percent) to 60 percent would be outstanding. And of course, there was a turnout of 62 percent. So this outpouring of Iraqis in support of their future I think is an immensely encouraging sign. We now look forward to we hope a swift formation of a government, and then moving on with the -- with the political decisions that every government needs to make. 
                (Break for direction.)
                MR. MELHEM: Did you urge the Saudis to reopen their embassy in Baghdad?
                SEC. GATES: Yes, I did. And we continue to hope that all of the countries in the region will -- that have not yet reestablished a diplomatic presence in Baghdad will do so. We think that presence strengthens the government in Baghdad and provides a useful influence.
                MR. MELHEM: What did you hear from King Abdullah?
                SEC. GATES: Well, the decision on the part of Saudi Arabia will be Saudi Arabia's, and they will do it when they decide it's time.
                MR. MELHEM: Are they waiting for the formation of the new government and the results of the elections, like you are too?
                SEC. GATES:  I think that the indication that I received was that they are -- they are looking toward the formation of the government and then may make a decision.
                MR. MELHEM: Do you have any concern that the Iraqis will not form a government in a short amount of time?
                SEC. GATES: I think, obviously, it's a concern because of what happened in 2005 after the elections. And so we have -- we hope that this will be a process that moves fairly quickly. It may be that the election returns are very preliminary, but if one or two coalitions came out very strongly, that probably would facilitate a faster formation of government.
                But I think -- I think everyone, beginning with the election itself, should begin to look on Iraq with greater optimism. The progress that has been made over the last two or three years is really quite extraordinary, and I think too often, as we do in Washington, we get so focused on the tactical political debates and the issues, we forget the progress that's been made in Iraq. I think they seem to me to be completely on the right track.
                MR. MELHEM: Yemen: The Houthi rebellion quickly degenerated into a crisis with Iran, with accusations that Iran was providing the Houthis. Where is Iran in this conflict?
                SEC. GATES: Our impression at this point is that Iran had a very modest role in this, that this mainly was internal to Yemen.
                MR. MELHEM: The U.S. provided Saudi(s) with very sophisticated munitions in their fight with the Houthis. I was told the Saudis requested Predator drones and that the U.S. declined. Why did the U.S. decline?
                SEC. GATES: Well, a big obstacle, frankly, is the Missile Technology Control Regime. And armed Predators are covered under that. The United States has sold armed Predators only to two countries at this point, the United Kingdom and Italy.
                So there are some significant legal restrictions. We are looking at alternative ways of trying to satisfy the Saudi request.
                MR. MELHEM: What about the drones that were given to Pakistan?
                SEC. GATES: Well, I'm not going to talk about our military operations in the Afghan area like that. But I would say we use -- we clearly use the drones in Afghanistan, but they are all under the auspices of the United States.
                MR. MELHEM: How realistic are your hopes that the Arab Gulf states will build a regional defense system, given their reluctance to do so?
                SEC. GATES: I think there actually has been a good deal of progress in building a regional network of air and missile defense and also maritime surveillance. The states of the Gulf have common concerns, and the cooperation that they have begun to undertake with one another with our support and help is purely defensive, and I think is a very useful step forward.
                MR. MELHEM: Iran has been accused of perhaps using its allies in the region, such as Hezbollah. Are you worried that if you up sanctions on Iran, this will make them want to get back at the United States by using their allies?
                SEC. GATES: People forget that until September 11th, 2001, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group in history. Hezbollah has evolved since that time. They still have terrorist capabilities, even though they're engaged in other activities in Lebanon, and have more missiles than most governments have.
                I think if countries in the region are concerned about Iran's nuclear aspirations and about their missile proliferation, they are also concerned about Iran's influence-peddling and its -- and its efforts to covertly take actions in a variety of countries around the region. The rumors and suspicions of Iranian involvement in Yemen are an example of the kind of concerns that many countries in the region have.
                So I think it's all of these aspects of Iranian behavior that are a concern to countries in the region. And we share those concerns.
                MR. MELHEM: Recently the Congress passed a resolution regarding genocide in Turkey. And the Turkish ambassador was withdrawn from Washington, and Turkey threatened to withhold military assistance for the United States. As secretary of Defense, are you worried about this?
                SEC. GATES: I am worried about it. I will say that it was just one committee of the House of Representatives that voted this resolution. 
                We very strongly feel that the resolution is a mistake. Turkey and Armenia are making progress toward a reconciliation. Protocols have been drafted along those lines. That's the process that we think ought to be used. A resolution of this kind could be very damaging to U.S.-Turkish relations, and we certainly hope that the Congress and the House of Representatives take this measure no further.
                MR. MELHEM: (Inaudible) Can you tell us about your emotions and feelings about being responsible for two wars that are happening simultaneously in Afghanistan and in Iraq?
                SEC. GATES: The United States has been at war in both places every day I have been secretary of Defense, and I think that the most difficult responsibility that a secretary of Defense and a president have is sending young men and women to war.
                The consolation is, all of those we send are volunteers. They know what they're in for, they know it will be difficult, and yet they show extraordinary determination and courage. And their ability -- these young 18- and 19-year-olds -- to interact in a positive way with Iraqis and now Afghans is very heartwarming and very encouraging. They are in many respects some of our best ambassadors.
                And so while the onus of sending them in harm's way is great, the satisfaction in seeing the way they perform, both in combat and in their efforts to help the peoples of these countries, is very encouraging.
                MR. MELHEM: Will you stay in your position until the end of Obama's term?
                SEC. GATES: Probably not. 
                MR. MELHEM: (Chuckles.) You're known for giving very short answers. Can you give us more details on this?
                SEC. GATES: (Chuckles.) Probably not, but at a certain point I will have been in this position -- I'm the 22nd secretary of Defense. By the end of the year, I will have been in the position longer than all but four of my predecessors. There's a certain point at which the responsibilities need to be turned over to somebody with fresh energy.
                MR. MELHEM: (Makes remarks in Arabic) -- Robert Gates. "Shukran."
                (In English.) Thank you, sir.

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