aspen views

Gates: Israel and Gulf states don’t believe U.S. would use military action to prevent a nuclear Iran

The former defense secretary also attributed Biden’s recent trip to the Mideast to concerns that Russia and China were gaining increasing influence in the region

David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates is interviewed for "The Spymasters" at Mt. Vernon, Washington, December 15, 2014.

ASPEN, Colo. — Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that despite the Biden administration’s stated commitment to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, neither Gulf Arab nations nor Israel believes that Washington would act militarily to stop Tehran in its nuclear ambitions.

“If President Biden had his druthers, he would return to the JCPOA right now,” Gates said at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018. “And that is anathema to the Gulf Arabs and the State of Israel.”

“When President Biden says Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon, does that mean President Biden is willing to go to war with Iran?” the former defense secretary, who served in the role from 2006-2011 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said. “Israel will not permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and they will take care of them militarily if there is no other alternative. I don’t think either the Israelis or the Gulf Arabs, at this point, believe that President Biden is prepared to go to war to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”

But while Biden’s meetings with Saudi and Israeli officials in the region earlier this month addressed concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and the stalled negotiations in Vienna, a main goal of the trip, Gates said, was “to lay down a marker” amid increasing concerns that China and Russia are seeking to gain a foothold in the Middle East. He added that Israel and Arab countries were welcoming the change, which Gates attributed to successive Democratic and Republican administrations vocalizing their intent to scale back in the region.

The Gulf’s welcoming of Moscow and Beijing, Gates said, was “a logical hedging strategy” that Biden sought to address.

“The strategic driver [of the trip] was the realization,” he explained, “that for a variety of reasons, key players in the Middle East who have in the past been some of our closest friends, were increasingly open to expanding their relationship with both China and Russia.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.