There are two points to make about the New York Times story concerning the “secret” Bob Gates memo on Iran strategy. One is that Gates forwarded the memo in January. That was about the time it was becoming clear that we were losing accountability on the amount of refined uranium in Iran – and that our certainty about the amount of enriched uranium could be in question as well.
Iran increased indigenous uranium mining dramatically in late 2008 and continued at a rapid pace throughout 2009. The mining activities are not inspected by IAEA. Nor has there been a reported influx of new material to the processing sites that are inspected. There is a growing amount of uranium unaccounted for. Over the past 15 months, Iran has also acquired enough low-enriched uranium to produce a weapon and has proceeded to higher-level enrichment. Iranian’s regime reported success last week with enriching a fresh batch of uranium to 20 percent purity.
The situation has changed since Obama took office, and that puts Gates’s concern in an informative light. Military plans that would have been suitable for the conditions of late 2008 are outdated now. We are not as certain today of where all the refined or enriched uranium is. Moreover, because Iran has made substantial progress during this period, it’s now more important than it was two years ago to strike key research facilities in and around heavily populated Tehran. We can’t be sure today of effectively interdicting the weapons program by hitting only the uranium-processing sites. With the passage of time, the importance of hitting other targets – targets for which the political cost of a strike is much higher – has increased. Unfortunately, as Gates’s comments imply, the activities that would cue us at these sites are also less visible and more ambiguous than at the uranium-processing sites. We will be less certain when significant events have started or culminated at them.
Pundits are looking for a political motive behind the timing of this leak, but my sense about it is different. This is the second thing worth noting about the New York Times story: its absence of apparent spin. There is no subtle attempt to discredit Gates, to question his motive for the memo, or even to help the leaker(s) drive home a policy point. It’s a very different “leak story,” in other words, from previous ones about Obama’s policy in Afghanistan or Bush’s policy in the war on terror.
It’s almost as if the New York Times, itself, has run out of spin: as if it isn’t sure what it wants readers to think about this. That is as heartening, in its way, as the article is evidence that Secretary Gates recognizes how our military planning has fallen behind the pace of events. The piece gives us a glimpse – rare for the mainstream media – of ground truth about a policy situation. And what it shows us is a “bounded” problem: one for which there are pragmatic, relevant options. If Obama chooses to ignore Gates’s warning, even the New York Times may decline to cooperate in spinning that feckless course.