ANKARA, Turkey – Iran’s nuclear program continues to put security in the Middle East at risk despite international pressure to halt its efforts, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
“Iran is in violation of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and I think there is a very great worry that if Iran … proceeds with this program unconstrained, there is a very real danger of proliferation here in the region that would make it even more unstable and more unsafe for everyone,” Gates said at a roundtable with traveling U.S. and Turkish press.
The secretary flew here yesterday after a meeting with other defense ministers in Istanbul. His comments come on the heels of a warning by U.S. National Security Advisor James L. Jones at a conference in Munich, where Jones called Iran’s nuclear program a global threat.
The secretary praised President Barack Obama’s diplomatic efforts toward Iran, saying he has never seen an administration reach out in as principled and comprehensive a way as the president has. But, Gates added, “the response has been quite disappointing.”
Gates said the United States has no objection to Iran having a nuclear program that complies with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, but believes it is using its program to develop a nuclear weapon.
“They have done nothing to reassure the international community that they are prepared to comply with the NPT or stop their progress toward a nuclear weapon,” Gates said. “Therefore, I think that various nations need to think about whether the time has come for a different tack.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency had offered to exchange Iran’s lower-grade uranium for a higher grade that can be used for medical purposes. In the deal, Iran would turn over 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. Russia and France would enrich the uranium for use at a medical research reactor in Tehran.
Gates said Iran has rejected the offer, despite recent claims by Iranian officials that a deal is close to being reached.
“We had hoped that the Tehran research reactor proposal offered a way out of the current situation in a way that would be satisfactory to all the parties,” he said.
Gates called for tougher sanctions on the country if it does not comply with the terms of the agreement in an effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.
“Iran is the only country in the region that has publicly declared its intent to destroy another state in the region. This is not encouraging for a country that has a nuclear program, to say the least,” he said. “So I think there is a broad international agreement … to get Iran to stop this program.”
Turkey sits on Iran’s western border and is in a unique position to influence Iran, Gates said.
During his one-day stop here, Gates met with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul to discuss the war in Afghanistan, NATO’s plans for a missile defense system and U.S.-Turkish military relations.
Gates said he did not press Turkish officials for more troops in Afghanistan. The secretary said he is impressed by the Turkish contributions so far. The country has about 1,700 troops in Afghanistan, with two provincial reconstruction teams and several mentoring teams.