WASHINGTON -- Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates defended President Barack Obama's policy on Iran Friday, arguing that additional sanctions now run the risk of ending negotiations with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.
"I think the president is absolutely right to oppose Congress in enacting any additional sanctions right now," he said, speaking to a group of reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in the St. Regis Hotel in downtown Washington. "As hard it is for everybody to deal with, we may actually be seeing success in the policy."
"They are at the table -- I think the sanctions policy pursued by these presidents has worked. I think to add sanctions right now really would run a very high risk of blowing it all up."
As with many of the criticisms Gates leveled in his memoir, Duty: Memoirs Of A Secretary At War, he tempered his comments by suggesting that an act by Congress could also be beneficial. "On the other hand, I don't see the harm -- in fact, do see benefit -- in some kind of message, whether it's legislation or a resolution, that basically tells the Iranians, 'If these negotiations fail, then you are going to face a worse situation than you had at the beginning of the negotiations. We will not go back to a status quo ante.'"
"I think that would strengthen the administration's hand," he said of such a congressional action -- an argument that the administration rejects.
He concluded on a more supportive note for the administration, saying, "Giving the president and Secretary Kerry open-field running for the six months of this negotiation, I think, is very important."
Gates' comments on Iran were more definitively in favor of the administration's stance than those he gave to "PBS News Hour," where he said that while imposing new sanctions would be a mistake, it could strengthen the administration's position to threaten additional sanctions should negotiations break down. "I think that the idea of imposing new sanctions right now is a terrible mistake and would be a strategic error. On the other hand, I do disagree with the administration in this respect," he said. "I think any new sanctions need to be conditioned and triggered by the failure of the negotiations."
A bill sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) would appear to conflict with a Nov. 24 agreement between Western powers and Iran that the U.S. would not impose additional sanctions during the six months of an interim agreement. Iran's foreign minister told Time in December that a deal to resolve Iran's nuclear program would be "dead" if the U.S. imposes additional sanctions.
Though the bill's authors claim that sanctions would only be triggered if Iran walks away or violates an agreement, critics like the Arms Control Association argue that the bill would impose additional conditions -- such as limits on ballistic missile testing and financing of terrorist groups -- that would violate the November agreement.
The administration has lobbied Democrats to oppose the bill in the Senate, where it currently has 15 Democratic co-sponsors. At least one, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), has backed off the idea of holding a vote on the bill if the administration makes progress in its negotiations.
Kirk, on the other hand, is openly warning that negotiations will fail. "The path of appeasers always leads directly to war -- it just increases the appetite of the other side," he said. "Appeasers always lead directly to war. You can give Czechoslovakia to Hitler and he wants more. If you give billions of dollars to the Iranians, you're probably leading directly to conflict," he said Monday.