Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, hot on the publicity trail for his new book "Duty," cautions conservative members of Congress against imposing further sanctions against Iran as the Obama administration begins inaugural negotiations, while also encouraging the U.S. to step up its pressure.
"As hard as it is for anybody to deal with, we may actually be seeing success with a policy," Gates said at a breakfast meeting with reporters Friday. He cited sanctions imposed by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama as finally achieving their purpose of bringing Iran to the negotiating table to quell its ability to become a nuclear weapons state.
"I think the sanctions policy pursued by these three presidents has worked," Gates said. "To add sanctions right now, I think would run a very high risk of blowing it all up."
The U.S. and European Union have agreed to waive some of the more superficial economic, banking and trade sanctions against the Middle Eastern nation, in exchange for a six-month process to set the ground rules for Iran proving it cannot and will not produce weapons from its nuclear program.
Some conservative members of Congress have seen these negotiations as tacit approval of Iran's right to have a nuclear program, and are willing to impose additional sanctions until the government under President Hassan Rouhani agrees to cease all nuclear enrichment.
Gates pointed to these concerns Friday in couching his endorsement of Obama's immediate plans.
"I don't see the harm, and in fact do see the benefit in some kind of message, whether it's legislation or a resolution, that basically tells the Iranians, 'If these negotiations fail, you are going to face a worse situation than you had at the beginning of the negotiations,'" he said. "'We will not just go back to the status quo: You will face even more dire sanctions.'"
"That would strengthen the administration's hand in negotiating with the Iranians," Gates added. "We worry all the time about hardliners in Iran. Maybe we ought to let them worry a little bit about hardliners here in the United States when it comes to these sanctions."
The former defense secretary began his last full-time job under President George W. Bush and stayed on under Barack Obama, before retiring in 2011. He spent much of Friday morning clarifying portions of his new memoir that blast the current administration for supposed weak policies on Afghanistan and for generally concentrating power within the White House.
He offered two pieces of advice to the American negotiators squaring off against Iran: "Nobody is better than the Iranians, than the Persians, at slow-rolling negotiations," Gates said, adding that the administration aught to impose a firm deadline.
And secondly, at a minimum, the outcome of these negotiations must not leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state, where they can "dash to a weapon in a short period of time."
"That has to be an ultimate bottom line for us," he said.
Iran first hinted at its willingness to negotiate over its nuclear program in the lead up to the September U.N. General Assembly. New President Rouhani issued goodwill gestures to Jewish people worldwide and openly discussed improving human rights at home – a far cry from the rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The mysterious governance of Iran, believed to be controlled entirely by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has provoked caution among Iran watchers worldwide at this shift in policy.