MANAMA, Bahrain - Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued forcefully at a Persian Gulf security conference yesterday that US intelligence indicates Iran could restart its secret nuclear weapons program "at any time" and remains a major threat to the region.
Tough and at times sarcastic, Gates described the Iranian government as an ongoing menace to the Gulf region not only for its nuclear aspirations but also for supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, backing the armed Islamic movements Hezbollah and Hamas, and developing medium-range ballistic missiles.
"Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents," Gates said in a speech to defense leaders from 23 countries attending the Manama Dialogue, a security conference organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Gates acknowledged that the recent release of a US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which determined that the country halted its secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, was awkward and frustrating for the Bush administration. He explained that the CIA director decides on the content and release, without influence from Congress or the executive branch.
"The estimate clearly has come at an awkward time. It has annoyed a number of our friends, it has confused our allies around the world in terms of what we're trying to accomplish," he said.
International pressure is the only impediment to Iran restarting its nuclear weapons program, Gates said. "Iran is keeping its options open and could restart its nuclear weapons program at any time - I would add, if it has not done so already."
Gates urged countries around the world to demand that Iran "come clean" about its past nuclear weapons development and insist that it suspend enrichment, pledge not to develop nuclear weapons in the future and agree to inspections. Until it takes those steps, he suggested, engaging Iran in talks would not be productive.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes.
At one point, Gates, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, spoke mockingly of the Iranian government's agreement with the intelligence report.
"Astonishingly, the revolutionary government of Iran has this week, for the first time, embraced as valid an assessment of the United States intelligence community," Gates said. "I assume that it also will embrace as valid" US intelligence showing Iran is training militias in Iraq, backing terrorist organizations, and carrying out other hostile acts, he said.
Iranian officials decided Friday not to attend the conference.
In questions after Gates's speech, attendees voiced both approval and suspicion. Some accused the United States of a double standard for failing to object to Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. Asked if he thought Israel's nuclear arsenal posed a threat to the region, Gates initially said: "No, I do not." He added that, unlike Iran, Israel had never threatened to destroy a neighbor.
To better counter Iran and other threats, Gates urged Gulf nations to shift their focus from bilateral military ties with the United States toward multilateral cooperation. Specifically, he called for a collective effort to develop regional air and missile defense systems, as well as a shared monitoring of waters in the region for terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking, and smuggling.
Gates also endorsed the idea of forming an independent consortium that would give countries access to uranium enrichment for civil purposes. While that process can produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or a weapon, he said it could work with the proper controls.
"We ought to be thinking creatively about how the international community could provide such a thing," Gates said.
Some members of the audience challenged his rebukes of Tehran, showing the rift among Arab nations over the Bush administration's policy. Asked whether the United States would be willing to talk with Iran, Gates said the behavior of Iran's current leadership "has not given one confidence that a dialogue would be productive."
"There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing," he said.
On Iraq, Gates said that President Bush's troop increase over the past year has helped quell violence and demonstrated an enduring US commitment to stabilizing the country. But he said the decline in US troop levels starting this month represents "risks and opportunities for the whole region."
Arab nations should back the Iraqi government, Gates said, because if Iraq fails as a state, the repercussions would be felt first and most profoundly in the Middle East.
Gates ended his speech with a grim warning against underestimating the United States. Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and the former Soviet Union all made that miscalculation, Gates said. "All paid the price. All are on the ash heap of history."
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.