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Iran Nuclear Delays Defer Military Action, Gates Says

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates during an interview in Beijing today. Photographer: Keith Bedford/Bloomberg

Technical glitches and sanctions that have delayed Iran’s nuclear program give the U.S. and its partners more time to exert pressure without resorting to military action, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

“As we say, all options are on the table and we prepare for all options,” Gates said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television during a visit to China. “But I think that if we have bought some additional time, that it does give greater opportunity to the political-economic strategy.”

The defense chief also praised the Chinese government for its “constructive” role in trying to restrain North Korean belligerence. The Obama administration has been pushing China to rein in its communist ally after two attacks on South Korea last year killed 50 people.

China and the U.S. “have a common interest, going forward, in trying to get ahead of these provocations, prevent them from happening again in the future and put the relationship between the North and the South on a more positive track,” Gates said.

The U.S. has aimed for years to persuade leaders in Tehran to give up development of technology that could produce a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration last year won support from China, Russia and the European Union to intensify financial and economic sanctions.

Possible Sabotage

Reports indicate that possible sabotage has hindered Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium, a process necessary to produce an atomic bomb. Iran last month began reducing three-decade-old energy subsidies worth as much as $50 billion as restrictions from the United Nations, the U.S. and Europe took their toll.

The possible delays won’t hurt U.S. efforts to keep up the pressure on Iran, Gates said. Sanctions are “evidence of the international community’s belief that these kinds of pressures are the best way to deal with this problem,” he said.

Israel’s outgoing head of intelligence, Meir Dagan, said last week Iran wouldn’t be able to produce a nuclear weapon before 2015, three or four years later than earlier Israeli estimates. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday cited the effect of sanctions and technical problems.

“Their program from our best estimate has been slowed down, so we have time, but not a lot of time,” Clinton said at a town hall meeting at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.

Suspected Sabotage

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Nov. 29 that several centrifuges used to enrich uranium were affected by malicious computer software. Symantec Corp., the world’s largest maker of computer security software, said in a Nov. 12 study that the Stuxnet virus may have been created to sabotage Iran.

Iran’s leaders say their program is meant for peaceful means, including power generation and medical research.

Gates is in the midst of a three-day stop in Beijing, where he is seeking to improve military ties with China and support for U.S. efforts to curb Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs.

China’s top foreign policy official, Councilor Dai Bingguo, last month met with North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, whose regime on Jan. 8 called for unconditional talks with South Korea to ease tensions. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s government has yet to agree and in December threatened a more immediate and severe response to attacks, including air raids.

‘A Sea Change’

“There’s been a sea change in attitude on the part of the South Koreans in terms of their willingness to tolerate these kinds of provocations,” Gates said.

He is due to meet President Hu Jintao later today after holding talks with Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Liang yesterday agreed to consider a proposal to begin regular strategic security talks, a year after China cut military relations to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Liang didn’t commit to a timeframe for starting such talks nor for reaching agreement on a structure for more regular contacts.

Hu will visit the U.S. next week, where his schedule will include a Jan. 19 state dinner at the White House. Hu and U.S. President Barack Obama have tasked their militaries with establishing more regular dialogue to reduce the risk of miscalculation that could escalate into a crisis.

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