- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Gary G. Sick, a prominent expert on Iran, worked with Robert M. Gates in the White House during the Ford and Carter administration. He says the nomination of Gates to replace Donald M. Rumsfeld as secretary of defense marks a “moment of real change” for the administration of George W. Bush. Gates “represents a completely different brand of political action than the neoconservatives who have surrounded both Rumsfeld and Cheney up until now and who have been important in the policymaking process,” says Sick, who is the executive director of the Gulf/2000 Project at Columbia University, a program devoted to studying the countries in the Persian Gulf region.
During the Ford and Carter administrations, you served on the National Security Council (NSC) staff in charge of Iranian affairs. Was Robert M. Gates working with you at the time?
He was at the NSC, and we worked together and I knew him and liked him very much. We’re both from Kansas. He’s from Wichita and I’m from Russell and so we had something in common.
And he went on in the senior Bush administration to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), right?
That is correct. Bush senior actually appointed him to be the director of central intelligence in 1991. It was particularly significant in terms of a demonstration of real trust because the elder Bush had himself in fact been a director of central intelligence (DCI). By naming Bob Gates to that job it was clearly a signal that was someone that he trusted. Gates had been involved, but not really damaged too much, during the Iran-Contra Affair. He knew a lot of the people who were playing these games of sending arms to Iran and sending money off to support the Contras in Nicaragua. He was aware of that, and he made it clear that he was aware of it, though there was some dispute about when he learned about it. The bottom line was that although he had some kind of a role in Iran-Contra he was never indicted. That did keep him from being confirmed as President Reagan’s DCI at an earlier stage. But President [George H.W.] Bush later came along and nominated him again in 1991 and the confirmation went through.
I see. In private life he was the cochairman with Zbigniew Brzezinski of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on U.S. Policy toward Iran.
That’s correct. That came out in the summer of 2004. I think this was one of the landmark studies the Council did. The Council got a truly blue-ribbon group together, people who were both extremely knowledgeable about what was going on in Iran, plus some people who were very savvy about Washington politics. They all sat down and thought about what U.S. policy should be for the future and they came to a very firm conclusion that we needed to engage Iran directly if possible. The two chairs in particular, Brzezinski, who had been President Carter’s national security adviser, and Gates, gave it a certain amount of punch. But I must say the report fell on deaf ears in Washington, where there was just no interest whatsoever in any kind of an opening to Iran. This was a year after the beginning of the war in Iraq and Iran had been denounced as one of the three members of “the axis of evil.” There was just no interest whatsoever in Washington to pursue this further.
And this was after Iran had sent a diplomatic note to the United States asking for a sweeping review of relations, right?
That’s correct and as far as I know the study group was unaware of that. That was in 2003, just about the time of the invasion of Iraq. The Iranians sent a formal letter through the Swiss—who are representing American interests since we have no embassy in Tehran—and it basically suggested direct talks to look at all aspects of the relationship between Iran and the United States. The reception it got in Washington was not only chilly, it was absolutely frigid. They basically threw the thing away, it never got any mention whatsoever and the story is—and apparently it’s true—the Swiss ambassador who carried the message to Washington was actually chastised for exceeding his authority.
Well, now let’s play prognosticator a bit. Gates has obviously been hired to replace Rumsfeld with the idea being to work on Iraq primarily. Yet being in on the National Security Council meetings, he’ll be deeply involved one way or the other with Iran policy. Do you think he’ll have much input on that?
There are at least a couple of areas where I think his input could be extremely important. As you’re probably aware, there has been a lot of talk about the United States launching an attack against Iran. Seymour Hersh [of the New Yorker] has been writing on the subject and Scott Ritter [a former U.N. arms inspector in Iraq] has been saying that the war has already begun. There were rather hysterical reports in the last month or so [in TIME] about a U.S. naval task force that was arriving in the Persian Gulf, and that this was going to be the moment when a preemptive strike was launched. Of course, that didn’t happen but there is a kind of uneasiness about that possibility.
I would think that at a minimum the nomination of Gates as secretary of defense would push that even further back to the backburner than it is presently. I’ve never really thought this was going to happen, but actually I have been a minority in thinking that in some circles. But now with Gates coming in, it’s very difficult for me to imagine this guy, who is a consummate realist and pragmatist, launching a wild attack against Iran with the idea that somehow we’re going to solve all of our problems with Iran with a military strike. I just can’t see him doing that. The other side is that the Defense Department under Rumsfeld has been building up, just as it did before the Iraq war, its own intelligence service, which basically takes a jaundiced view of everything the CIA and other intelligence agencies do. That’s the organization that came to the conclusion Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction and they had close relationships with al-Qaeda and so forth.
That’s the shop it came out of. Someone named Adam Shulsky is heading it. The interesting thing is that shop is now being reconstituted in the Defense Department and I would be very surprised if Gates, with his really impeccable intelligence credentials, would go along with that kind of rogue intelligence operation. So I would suspect that if there were people who were trying to play the same game that was played before the Iraqi invasion, that is, cherry-pick the intelligence and decide what looks scariest and then get the highest authorities to use that as a justification for invading Iran, if that was what anybody had in mind I should think he would put a stop to that. I don’t think he’s going to be called up to decide whether we open diplomatic relations with Iran right away but at least he would have quite a bit to say about the military aspects of this.
Now what do you think his relationship with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be?
It’s hard to judge except they both have a similar background. Both of them are Russian speakers and really cut their teeth on the Cold War and were Soviet experts. And both of them really come out of the realist camp of U.S.politics. That, of course, has put Condoleezza Rice at somewhat of a disadvantage in the present set of circumstances, where she’s had to deal with Vice President Dick Cheney on one side and Don Rumsfeld on the other, both of whom did not share her views necessarily on many issues. I should think Bob Gates would be quite a bit more sympathetic to [Secretary of State] Condi Rice’s point of view than he would be for instance to Dick Cheney’s point of view.
Now, it’s interesting because Condi Rice, with the president’s approval, offered herself to talk to the Iranians if they agreed to suspend their uranium enrichment program. You get into this sort of back and forth of who should go first and I wonder if there might be a change in policy possible. That would have been what Gates’ task force had recommended.
Yes, it is. But you do have to remember that Vice President Cheney, before he became vice president, was the head of Halliburton and in that capacity he made speeches and wrote articles basically calling for an opening to Iran, doing away with the sanction against Iran and so forth and calling it a really foolish and pointless sanction.
This was in the 90s?
This was just before he became vice president, but when he was selected to be vice president for George W. Bush he never said another word about that whole idea. He has become one of the toughest hawks with regard to Iran sanctions and so forth. So the fact that somebody says one thing as a private citizen doesn’t necessarily mean that they will sustain that when they actually take public office.
What did Gates do after Bush senior left office? I guess he left the CIA then.
He left the CIA and he went to Texas A&M. He went there originally to head its international relations school and then went from there to become the president of the school. Apparently he was made a firm offer to become the director of national intelligence, the position that John Negroponte now holds. He was officially offered that position. He said that he thought about it very hard and originally thought he was going to say yes and then changed his mind and said no, but it was a very close call.
I think we’re in for an interesting time now.
I do too, and I honestly believe this is a moment of real change because Gates couldn’t be more different from Rumsfeld or Cheney. He represents a completely different brand of political action than the neoconservatives who have surrounded both Rumsfeld and Cheney up until now and who have been important in the policymaking process. That’s got to be a very clear signal that, if nothing else, the United States is moving closer to policy that I would consider to be more realist oriented rather than neoconservative or ideologically oriented. Because the one thing you can say about Gates for sure is that he is no ideologue. He worked for various presidents in various guises and he is a pragmatic, problem-solving, realistic guy. He is tough minded but he is not somebody who is given to flights of ideological fancy. I think it is a real change that we are going to see in the coming two years.