Addressing a conference on Gulf security in Bahrain over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke of "deep concerns of the U.S. and its allies" over Iran's continued quest for nuclear power.
Contradicting the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate -- or at least what was understood to be released in the NIE findings -- Gates said this week marks a watershed.
"Astonishingly, the revolutionary government of Iran has, for the first time, embraced as valid an assessment of the United States intelligence community -- on Iran's nuclear weapons program. And since that government now acknowledges the quality of American intelligence assessments, I assume that it will also embrace as valid American intelligence assessments of:
-- Its funding and training of militia groups in Iraq;
-- Its deployment of lethal weapons and technology to both Iraq and Afghanistan;
-- Its ongoing support of terrorist organizations -- like Hezbollah and Hamas -- that have murdered thousands of innocent civilians; and
-- Its continued research on development of medium-range ballistic missiles that are not particularly cost-effective unless equipped with warheads carrying weapons of mass destruction."
Gates, who used to be director of the CIA, said that the NIE report "expressed with greater confidence than ever that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program." Gates said the report issued by all 16 U.S. intelligence services is explicit in stating that Iran is keeping its options open.
"The Islamic republic is continuing its nuclear enrichment program," Gates said.
"Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents -- Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
"We must keep all our options open," Gates told the Fourth International Institute of Strategic Studies security summit in Manama, Bahrain's capital.
Gates called for greater sanctions to be taken against the Islamic republic, saying the United States and the international community must "continue and intensify economic, financial and diplomatic pressures on Iran" until they suspend enrichment and agree to have their sites verified by the international community.
"Let's continue to work together to take the necessary peaceful but effective measures necessary to bring a long-term change of policies in Tehran," he said during the opening speech of the first day's plenary session.
He said the United States and its allies "share a deep concern over Iran's current course." He added that for 29 years he has been watching the Iranian government and they have yet to keep their word.
Gates lashed out at Syria and Iran, saying, "Any nation that supports insurgents or militias in Iraq -- either actively or passively -- is in reality doing harm to itself, and all the people of the Middle East, be they Sunni, Shiites, or any other sect."
The implications of Iran's ongoing refusal to comply with its international obligations and the destabilizing effects of its actions, said Gates, was forcing the United States to strengthen its security ties in the Gulf region.
But if Iran presented a rather gloomy picture, Gates, on the other hand, offered an optimistic view of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly when compared with the previous year.
"The record of American activity over the past year should dispel uncertainty regarding American commitments in the Middle East.
"The progress is real," said Gates, adding, "but it is also fragile."
He said the Iraqi government must use this breathing space "bought with the blood of American, coalition and Iraqi troops to pass critical legislation."
Gates said since the surge of U.S. forces began earlier this year, civilian deaths across Iraq went down by 60 percent, and they're down 75 percent in Baghdad. "Recently, there was the lowest number of the single-day attacks across the nation in 3 1/2 years."
The improvement and security Gates attributed to a number of factors, among them:
-- A change in military tactics intended to protect Iraqi civilians from insurgents, militias and foreign terrorists.
-- The increasing effectiveness of the Iraqi military, in tandem with U.S. troops.
-- The decision by some, but not all, militia groups to stand down from offensive operations, and
-- The groundswell of ordinary citizens who have risen up to fight al-Qaida in Iraq and protect their families and their neighborhoods.
Gates also mentioned the economic factor that helped stabilize Iraq. The debt incurred by Saddam Hussein has been significantly reduced by the international community.
Sound economic policies began to lower inflation rates, stabilize the currency and create a business environment that is becoming attractive to foreign investment. The result is the growth of 5 percent.
However, any attack on Iran would reverse any gains made in Iraq. This point was repeated to the U.S. secretary of defense by various Gulf officials.
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