- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

SINGAPORE — Stronger penalties are needed against Iran, “not next year or the year after, but right now” because of the uncertainty over how soon Tehran may acquire a nuclear weapon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.

Mr. Gates did not rule out military action to stop Iran’s program, though he said it was an unattractive option.

“Probably everybody in this room wants there to be a diplomatic solution to this problem,” he told an international audience of military officers, government officials and private security specialists.

Asked about U.S. intelligence estimates of Iran’s progress toward getting nuclear arms, Mr. Gates said, “Having to take care of this problem militarily is in no one’s interest.”

Yet, uncertainty about Tehran’s nuclear work, he said, “does put a premium on unanimity in the international community — especially in the U.N. Security Council — in terms of ratcheting up the pressure on the Iranians, not next year or the year after, but right now.”

The council has ordered two rounds of penalties over Iran’s nuclear program.

On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States was not preparing for war against Iran and that Vice President Dick Cheney supports that policy. Mr. Cheney last month stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and warned Tehran that Washington would prevent the Islamic republic from dominating the Middle East.

Mr. Gates said the “general view” among U.S. intelligence analysts is that Iran could develop a nuclear device “probably sometime in the period 2010-2011 or 2014 or [20]15.”

“The reality is that, because of the way Iran has conducted its affairs, we really don’t know,” making it even more urgent to strengthen economic penalties in hopes of forcing Iran to change course, Mr. Gates said.

Iran insists its nuclear program is intended to develop nuclear power as an energy source. The Bush administration rejects that explanation.

Iran was not represented at the conference, held each year to exchange views on security issues affecting the Asia-Pacific region. Iran also was not a central focus of the conference, but it was the subject of the first question put to Mr. Gates after he delivered a prepared address offering assurances the United States would remain an Asia power.

Asked whether the United States and its allies are winning the fight against terrorism, Mr. Gates said it was too early to say. He called for more focus and progress on combating poverty and other problems that he said are underlying causes of extremism.

“I think we are still early in this contest,” he said.

For the first time, China chose to send a senior official, Lt. Gen. Zhang Qinsheng, who offered a pointed defense of his country’s military buildup and said it was strictly for self-defense.

In response to a question from former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, Gen. Zhang said China expects a final agreement in September on a long-standing U.S. proposal for a “hot line” between American and Chinese defense leaders for use during crises.

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