Amid all the speculation about a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities — and what such a strike would mean for the United States — Robert M. Gates says he's "blessedly" relieved that he's no longer the Pentagon's top man.
Throughout his decades of government service, including stints as secretary of defense and director of the CIA, Gates has wrestled with his share of foreign-policy predicaments. But how to handle the current situation with Iran, he says, is one of the toughest challenges he's ever encountered.
"The problem is that there are three clocks at work here, all of them moving at a different speed," Gates said in an interview with the Jewish Exponent, ahead of his upcoming appearance at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's major campaign event on March 15.
One clock is Iran's own internal timer. With the country facing powerful international economic sanctions, the question is, he said, whether they will cause enough instability to change Tehran's approach to its nuclear program.
The second clock is the pace at which that nuclear program is proceeding, and the third clock revolves around the thorny questions ticking steadily away in the United States and Israel: How much longer can you wait to see if sanctions work and is military intervention the solution?
His comments came just days before the U.S. national security adviser, Tom Donilon, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem over the weekend and before a group of international monitors returned to Iran to seek greater clarity on what is happening on the ground.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, warned that an Israeli strike at this time would be "destabilizing." Gates' successor, Leon Panetta, recently suggested that Israel might strike sometime this spring, setting off a firestorm of reaction among analysts in both countries.
Gates, whose 2006-2011 term as secretary of defense spanned both the Bush and Obama administrations, said the tensions between Israel and the United States over the Iran question arise because the two nations see this "tough issue" through different lenses.
"Iran is a huge challenge for the United States, but it is an existential threat for Israel," he said. "We say we won't accept a nuclear Iran, but we said that about North Korea, too."
He asserted that the two allies generally agree in their assessment of how far along the Iranian program is. The difference, he said, stems from the thinking over what Iran's reaction would be to a military strike.
"A fair number in Israel think that Iran would respond only with a token attack," he said, suggesting that Israeli officials see a comparison with the lack of reaction to its strike at the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 and it's attack on a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.
In contrast, he said, the "more broadly accepted view in the United States" is that such an attack could launch another war that would be destabilizing to the region.
Why such different assessment? It's "just different perspectives," he said, adding that he is in sync with the prevalent American perspective. "My personal view is that neither one of those countries was Iran," he said, alluding to Iraq and Syria.
Although Gates has cautioned against military action in the past, he told the Exponent that the question "is ultimately something Israel has to decide for itself."
Gates acknowledged that the wide speculation over whether Israel would take unilateral military action without first conferring with — or at least warning — the United States is indicative of some tension between the two allies.
Some of that friction, he has suggested, stems from the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which President Barack Obama placed as a high priority on his foreign-policy agenda when he took office.
He said the disputes over Jewish settlements in the West Bank that have led to public disagreements between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not new.
Noting that he has worked for eight presidents, Gates said that the most angry he has seen any of them is over the settlements issue.
He said there is frustration on the part of the U.S. government with both Israel and the Palestinians, but the stories about tensions with Israel are overblown.
"There are some superficial tensions," he said, but the actual relationship between Israel and the United States has never been stronger.
"We've done more for Israel in the past five years," going as far or farther than any military cooperation in the past, he said, citing as examples the funding Washington provides for Israel's joint missile-defense program and the Iron Dome, which aims to protect against short-range rocket attacks.
"There's a huge underlying bond between the two countries; we wouldn't be doing what we do for Israel if there wasn't recognition of the strong alliance."
Gates, who was recently installed as chancellor of the College of William and Mary, his alma mater, is slated to tackle some of the recent developments in the region during his talk in Philadelphia, "A Diplomat's Guide to the New Mideast."
The Arab Spring and what's happening in the foreseeable future "presents the U.S. and Israel with more problems than opportunities," he said.
He also predicted little movement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this time, saying there are "too many factors working against progress," especially given the recently declared unity government between Hamas and Fatah. "How can you have a unity government with two parties — one willing to work with Israel, the other sworn to its destruction?"
Asked about the outcome of the war in Iraq, which he inherited when he became secretary of defense in 2006, during President George W. Bush's second term, Gates demurred.
"It's too early to tell," he said of whether the nearly nine-year war could be considered a success.
How Iraq develops from this point on, he said, will help determine that judgment.