Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday that Iran's government is becoming a military dictatorship, with religious leaders being sidelined and, as a result, new sanctions could pressure Tehran into curbing its illegal nuclear program.
"What we've seen is a change in the nature of the regime in Tehran over the past 18 months or so," Mr. Gates said on "Fox News Sunday."
"You have a much narrower-based government in Tehran now," he said. "Many of the religious figures are being set aside."
The defense secretary said Iranians "appear to be moving more in the direction of a military dictatorship."
Iran's supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "is leaning on a smaller and smaller group of advisers," he said. "In the meantime, you have an illegitimate election that has divided the country."
"There's no doubt that Iran's military and security forces are playing an active role in running the regime," said a U.S. official familiar with assessments on Iran. "Religious leaders like Khamenei continue to make key decisions and rely on the vast security apparatus to carry them out."
Since Iran's 2005 presidential election, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) expanded its control over the national economy. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former IRGC officer, has appointed many retired IRGC officers to posts in Iran's government bureaucracy. The IRGC also began to control more oil contracts and asserted itself in Iran's efforts to obtain nuclear technology.
"Right now, the Revolutionary Guard is everywhere," said Mohsen Sazgara, a founder of the IRGC who now lives in the United States and backs Iran's democratic opposition, the Green Movement. "They control the economy, the news agencies, radio and television; they own several newspapers and the security forces and intelligence forces. They have secret prisons, and they control the puppet Ahmadinejad."
Mr. Gates said that added economic pressures on top of the militarization "has real potential" of pressuring Iran into complying with international controls on its nuclear program.
Along with allies in the Persian Gulf and improvements in their defenses and other diplomatic pressure, "I think you have a reasonable chance of getting the Iranian regime finally to come to their senses and realize their security is probably more endangered by going forward than by stopping it," Mr. Gates said of the nuclear program.
The U.N. Security Council on June 11 passed a resolution sanctioning Iran, focused on limiting Tehran's access to nuclear-weapons goods and ballistic missiles and seeking to isolate the IRGC, the Islamist military forces that are in charge of nuclear and missile programs.
The resolution identifies 40 entities and one person who are the targets of the economic sanctions.
"On their own, these sanctions will not solve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program," Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute said in a report on the sanctions. "But wisely implemented and enforced, they could prove critical in preventing Iran from getting the bomb. And that's a very good thing."
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Gates also said pessimistic assessments of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan are "overly negative" and that plans for withdrawing troops in July 2011 will be decided by conditions in the country at that time.
On recently passed legislation that would repeal the military ban on openly gay service members, Mr. Gates said unwanted items in the current defense authorization bill could lead to a presidential veto, despite President Obama's plan to lift the policy called "don't ask, don't tell."
Mr. Gates originally opposed a congressional vote on repealing the ban before the military could complete its review. However, under political pressure, he reversed himself and agreed to the vote on lifting the ban, which passed both armed services committees earlier this month and allows implementation to be delayed.
"I feel it's very important for the military to have the opportunity to weigh in, to register their views on these issues, and to give us help on how to do this smart, should the legislation pass," Mr. Gates said.
Asked whether repeal of the ban is inevitable, Mr. Gates said, "The president has made his decision."
"Our review is about how to implement this, and what are the obstacles, what are the problems, what are the challenges, what are the issues," Mr. Gates said. "How do we mitigate the negative consequences, if we identify negative consequences? What are the questions we have to address? Those are the things this review is all about."
Mr. Gates said Mr. Obama could veto the defense bill containing the gay-ban repeal if the final bill includes funds for building unwanted C-17 transport aircraft or an alternative jet engine to the new F-35 multiservice fighter-bomber.
Mr. Gates was asked about comments from the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who said operations in Marja were a "bleeding ulcer" and that a major offensive against Kandahar is being delayed by a lack of Afghan civilian support.
"Sure, it's a concern. But I think that the narrative is perhaps overly negative, in part because it's incomplete," Mr. Gates said.
He said the "bottom line" is that progress is being made in stabilizing southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold.
"It's somewhat slower than anticipated," he said, noting that "it is a tough pull, and we are suffering significant casualties."
"We expected that; we warned everybody that would be the case last winter, that as we went into areas that the Taliban had controlled for two or three years, that our casualties would grow, especially this summer," he said.
"But I think General McChrystal's message to the defense ministers was he is confident he will be able to demonstrate by December that we not only have the right strategy, but that we are making progress."
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