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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates September 04, 2009

Secretary Gates Interview with Al Jazeera at the Pentagon

Q Mr. Secretary, on behalf of Al Jazeera network, we're absolutely delighted to be here in the Pentagon doing this interview with you. Thank you for your time.

There are obviously as you know rumblings of discontent, among Americans, about what's going on in Afghanistan. How much is that of a concern to you personally as the secretary of Defense?

SEC. GATES: Americans know that our country has been at war for a number of years, ever since we were attacked in 2001. And obviously we've lost a lot of our young men and women in combat, not to mention the casualties in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11th.

And so there is a certain war-weariness on the part of the American people. But by the same token, I believe that they and members of our Congress vividly remember that it was from Afghanistan that the attack on us was launched and that the Taliban did not just provide a safe haven for al Qaeda but actively cooperated with them, colluded with them and provided them with a worldwide base of operations.

And so I think the American people know that we have to work with the Afghan government and the Afghan people so that they can establish control over their own territory and prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for al Qaeda in the future.

I mean, the reality is also that al Qaeda has killed many more Muslims than it has Americans and Europeans and others. And so this is a -- this is a challenge we all face, and I -- I'm confident that the American people will sustain their commitment to help the Afghan people.

Q Obviously, I'd like to come back to the issue of al Qaeda and 9/11 and Afghanistan. But before I move on to ask you about that, there are Americans on both the left and the right, and there are people outside the United States, who look at what's going on in Afghanistan and they conclude that the United States is in a bit of a pickle in Afghanistan. How much of a pickle do you think the United States is in in Afghanistan?

SEC. GATES: I think the picture is mixed. It's clear that the Taliban have had success in reinfiltrating back into the country. They have intimidated a lot of Afghans. And so we and our allies and the Afghan security forces clearly have our work cut out for us. It -- the situation is serious. But General McChrystal and, I must say, the Afghan defense minister, Minister Wardak, both have told me that they believe that we can be successful.

Q Now, on the issue of the difficulty that the United States is facing in Afghanistan, recently there's been the incident in Kunduz where 90 people were killed.

And there are reports that the 90 people included civilians. That has been a constant theme in the trouble that the United States military has been having in Afghanistan -- the killing of civilians in that country. How much of a real problem is that for the U.S. military at this particular point in time in terms of the strategy that the president, President Obama, would like to see implemented there?

SEC. GATES: I think it's a real problem, and General McChrystal believes it's a real problem.

Clearly we regret any loss of innocent life in Afghanistan, and I've addressed this issue while in Afghanistan, as well as here in the United States. And one of the central themes of General McChrystal's new approach in Afghanistan is significant change in our tactical approach to try and minimize the number of innocent civilians who are killed. So he has changed the rules in terms of the use of airpower. He has changed the rules we are -- he has issued a tactical directive that our convoys obey Afghan traffic laws and in fact that our troops take some additional risk to avoid -- to themselves to avoid innocent Afghan casualties.

Part of the challenge here is that the Taliban actively target innocent civilians, and they also create circumstances where they mingle among innocent civilians and they make it very difficult. And they are willing to put the innocent civilians at risk and -- but we are trying to figure out new tactics that minimize this. But it is a challenge.

The -- central to the success of the 42 nations that are trying to help the Afghan people and government at this point is that the Afghan people continue to believe that we are their friends, we are their partners, and we are there to help them. And so civilian casualties are a problem for us, and we are doing everything conceivable to try and avoid them.

Q Now when you say that the Afghan people continue to think of the U.S. military as their friends in Afghanistan, the flip side of the coin is that there has been increasing support among the Afghans for the Taliban.

And that has enabled the Taliban to make a lot of the gains that we hear about, military gains, including a marked improvement in the tactics they use against the U.S. military.

Now you're saying that the Afghan people continue to support the United States.

SEC. GATES: I think that -- I think based on the latest polling that we have nationwide, in Afghanistan, fewer than 10 percent of the people support the Taliban. The Taliban's approach is one principally of intimidation of villagers and others. And the Afghans don't want to live under those circumstances.

They don't want to live under the Taliban rule again. And while they may not -- while they may not actively support the United States, neither do they support the Taliban. What -- you asked me earlier about the Americans being -- growing weary of the war.

The Afghan people have been at war for over 30 years. And what they want is peace and security. And over time, we and all of the international community with us, along with the Afghan security forces, are in a position to try and bring that to them.

Q Talking of 30 years of war in Afghanistan, the Afghans are renowned for being very hostile to foreign powers being in Afghanistan. We've seen that with the British, saw it with the Soviets. And to some extent, we are seeing it with the U.S.

Given all the things that you say the United States is doing, to explain to the Afghans that the United States military is there to help them, do you think that holds water in the eyes of the majority of Afghans, knowing their historical rejection of foreign powers in their country?

SEC. GATES: I think that the historical rejection of foreign powers has been because the Afghan people have come to see those powers, whether it's Britain or the Soviet Union or anyone else, as being there for their own imperial interests rather than being there in the interests of the Afghan people.

We have no interest in a permanent presence in Afghanistan. We have no interest in bases in Afghanistan. What our principal interest is in, is in giving Afghanistan the capacity to protect its own people and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a center of violent extremists again. And then we'll leave.

And I think that's an important message from us to the Afghan people. We want to give them the capacity to protect their own security and -- as well as the security of other nations around the world from threats emanating from Afghanistan. And then we'll be gone.

Q Sir, if I may right there take you on a bit of a tangent, when President Barack Obama says that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity as opposed to the war in Iraq, which he describes as a war of choice -- now, when he said he had to prosecute this war in Afghanistan, did he -- and I want your personal assessment here -- did he say it because he knew that it is a -- it could be a winnable situation? Or does he say that it's a war of necessity because if he said otherwise, and he had talked about exiting from Afghanistan, people on the right, especially in this country, will say President Obama does not actually have what it takes to look after the concerns -- the national-security concerns of America and Americans?

SEC. GATES: I don't believe that President Obama would have made the commitment he has made if he did not believe that we could achieve our objectives in Afghanistan, which, as I have described, are giving them the capacity to secure their own territory and prevent al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan. If he didn't think we could achieve those objectives, I don't think he would have committed the forces -- the additional forces that he has or made the strong statements in support of the strategy as he did just a few weeks ago.

Q So you think the war in Afghanistan is winnable, given that Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it's achievable.

SEC. GATES: I don't like to speak in terms of winning or losing. I think we need to speak in terms of achieving our objectives. And this is not just about the United States; it's about the Afghan government and the Afghan people.

It's about dozens of nations and nongovernmental organizations that are in Afghanistan that all share the same objectives that I've just described, which is to bring peace and security to the Afghan people and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for violent extremists. So I think that those objectives are achievable, and I think that's the way we ought to think about it.

Q Now, there's a debate which, obviously, you're very aware of here in the United States, and the outside world is following it very closely, especially in Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslim world. And this debate is about the level of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Some people are saying, well, to secure the gains that the United States makes in Afghanistan, the troop level needs to be increased. But others say, well, the more you increase the level of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the more targets the Taliban have in terms of their tactics to drive the United States out of Afghanistan.

SEC. GATES: Well, there are arguments, obviously, on both sides of this issue. We are not yet beginning to think about significant additional troops in Afghanistan. The next step for us is to evaluate General McChrystal's assessment of the situation that he has found and the way he intends to implement the president's strategy going forward. And once we've done that, then we will look at the question of whether additional resources are needed to achieve those objectives.

I have been concerned about -- I've had a number of reservations about significant additional U.S. troops. One of those is, as we were just talking about, whether our forces come to be seen by the Afghans at some point as occupiers rather than as partners.

General McChrystal's point, which I think has great validity, is, it's really how those forces are used and how they interact with the Afghan people that determines how they are seen by the Afghans. And I think that the approach that he has taken in terms of partnering with the Afghans, and interacting with the Afghan people and supporting them, mitigates the concern that I had.

There are issues on both sides of it, and frankly, I haven't made up my own mind at this point in terms of whether I think more forces are needed.

But as far as you're concerned -- and I'm just trying to make sure that I've got it right -- as far as you're concerned, what -- basically saying is that any thinking of withdrawing the U.S. military from Afghanistan -- even thinking about it, at this particular point in time, is absolutely out of the question.

SEC. GATES: That's my view.

Q Now, this takes me back to your original point about 9/11; 9/11 happened, President Bush at that time made the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, which he did. And then subsequently he made the decision to actually go to Iraq, opening himself to criticism that he diverted attention, crucial attention, from Afghanistan to Iraq. And yet now we hear President Obama saying that it is a war of necessity.

A lot of people would argue it was a war of necessity then, but having moved away from it to come back to it is a war of choice.

SEC. GATES: It is a matter of -- first of all, this gets very much tied up into U.S. politics and into the controversies that are associated with the war in Iraq and so on. I think that success in achieving our objectives in Afghanistan has been a consistent theme since 2002 for both the Bush administration and for the Obama administration. I think President Obama would say, as you suggested, that our attention was diverted by Iraq, and now it is important to focus again on the situation in Afghanistan.

The truth is, the situation in Afghanistan has changed, and it really began to change in 2005 and early 2006, frankly, when agreements were reached on the Pakistani side of the border that essentially relieved the pressure from the Pakistan side on the Taliban, who were then in Pakistan. And so we have seen a steady increase in violence that really began in late 2005 and early 2006. And the Taliban have gotten better and better over that time.

You also now have alliances of convenience between the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his group and al Qaeda. So it's now a much more complex situation than it was perhaps in 2002.

But in terms of the determination, to deal with this problem and to partner with the Afghans, in achieving these objectives, the president is absolutely firm.

Q But when you say the situation is much more complex, to what extent is that synonymous with saying, we U.S. politicians missed the bandwagon?

SEC. GATES: Well, I -- the way I would phrase it and the way we have phrased it is that we did not provide the resources in Afghanistan early enough to stem the change in the situation in 2005 and 2006. And we have to speak frankly. Because of the troop commitments in Iraq, we didn't have the resources to move in reinforcements, if you will, as the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate.

When I first arrived in this job, I extended one brigade in Afghanistan, in January of 2007, and added another brigade later in the spring of 2007. But that was really about all the resources that we had at that time. As we have drawn down in Iraq, more capability has become available.

Q Sir, in the time left in this segment, I would like to ask you about the shenanigans with the AP over the publication of the picture of the dead U.S. Marine.

That puts you in a difficult position, to accuse a U.S. official of infringing or violating freedom of expression, doesn't it?

SEC. GATES: I -- I have -- in the letter that I sent, to the head of the Associated Press, I said this is not a matter of law, this is not a matter of policy, there's not a constitutional issue. This is a question of judgment and common decency and out of respect for the family.

What I asked was that they defer to the wishes of the family that these -- that these pictures of their maimed and stricken child not be provided to newspapers all over the United States. They chose to go ahead and do it anyway.

Q And you're concerned that this may have been interpreted as an infringement on freedom of the --

SEC. GATES: No, I don't think -- I've -- there's no question -- there's no issue of infringement of the freedom of the press whatsoever. I was asking them -- I didn't pressure them. I didn't threaten them. All I did was ask them. In fact, the words that I used with the head of the Associated Press was that I beg you to defer to the wishes of the father of this Marine. That's all I ask. That's not an infringement of the freedom of the press. That's an appeal to common decency.

Q Sir, I'd like to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about Pakistan, Iraq and Iran, and possibly other topics later in the show. (Makes remarks in Arabic.)


Q (Makes remarks in Arabic.)

(In English.) Mr. Gates, welcome back to the show. I would like to get you to talk a little bit on -- or about Pakistan. George Will, as you know, wrote about Pakistan, saying that it is the country that really matters. What do you make of that, and given that the implications are that Afghanistan does not really matter and the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan?

SEC. GATES: Pakistan is very important. It is important intrinsically to the United States. We have been a friend of Pakistan's for a long time and an ally of Pakistan's, and we've had a very close relationship. And we look forward to building that relationship going forward, completely independent of Afghanistan.

I think one of the new aspects of the president's strategy with respect to Afghanistan is the recognition that the problem we face there -- we and the Afghans -- is a regional problem. And as we've seen in recent months, it is a problem that the Pakistani government faces.

And so I think Pakistan clearly is important. It is important in its own right to the United States as a friend and ally. But it is also important in terms of violent extremists that cross back and forth across that border and put both the government of Afghanistan and the government of Pakistan at risk.

Q Now, given the difficulties that the Pakistani civilian governments, successive civilian governments, have had, how dependable from the U.S. point of view do you think is the current civilian government in Pakistan, in terms of being able to deal not only with the volatility of Pakistan but with the regional volatility?

Afghanistan is one example. India is the other example.

SEC. GATES: I think if you look back 15 or 16 months, the Pakistani government has performed admirably. No one, I think, would have predicted the political consensus that has emerged in Pakistan, in terms of the effort to take on these violent extremists in the North West Frontier Province, in the FATA and in that area.

I think people would not have predicted the success of the Pakistani army. I think people would not have predicted the success in Pakistan -- Pakistanis -- the Pakistani government's effective dealing with internally displaced persons, as a result of military operations, and how many of them have returned to Swat, and how effective the Pakistani government has been in this respect.

So all of that is simply to say, I believe that the Pakistani government, both the civilian side and the military side, have performed better than almost anyone's expectations, in the region or in this country or elsewhere. And we are very impressed by that. And we are prepared to be helpful, to help the Pakistanis, in any way we can.

Q Now, given the serious misgivings that the United States had in the past, about the role of Pakistani intelligence, in terms of dealing with the Taliban, there were accusations to Pakistani intelligence at that time that they were actually lending a hand of support to the Taliban.

Are you 100 percent satisfied now that that has stopped and that you, the Pakistani military and the Pakistani civilian government are all in the same trench working for the same goal?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I believe we are in the same trench working for the same goal. I think you have to go back a little bit in history. I was very much involved in the American effort 20, 25 years ago in cooperation with Pakistan to support the mujahedeen in Afghanistan when they were fighting against the Soviet Union.

One of the vehicles that we used in that effort was the connection between the Pakistani intelligence services and the various mujahedeen groups within Afghanistan. So these relationships with these different groups in Afghanistan and with the Pakistanis go back a long way and at that time were very productive and were very useful.

My own view is that the connections were maintained largely as a hedge, because the Pakistanis are very concerned about the stability of that border area and about the stability of Afghanistan, and they want -- and they weren't sure whether we would continue our efforts in Afghanistan. So I believe we are on the same page; I believe we're working for the same goals. I have a lot of confidence in the Pakistanis.

Q Now, basically, what you're saying -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- the implication of what you're saying is that the United States will not do again what it did after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which is to cut loose and leave, leaving the regional players to fend for themselves, undermining the credibility of the United States in that part of Asia.

SEC. GATES: I think that's absolutely right. I think that -- and I have to say, I was in the American government at the time we did that, and it was a serious strategic mistake. As soon as the Soviets left Afghanistan, we turned our backs on Afghanistan, and we did not cultivate our relationship with the Pakistanis properly. And so I think we gave rise to doubts in the region about whether we are prepared to stay there and be their partner on a continuing basis. And I believe we have learned our lesson and that both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term.

Q And in terms of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, you are absolutely, categorically sure that there is no risk that they may fall into the wrong hands, given the pressures that the Taliban in Afghanistan are exerting not just on the Pakistanis but also on the United States in Pakistan?

SEC. GATES: I'm quite comfortable that the security arrangements for the Pakistani nuclear capabilities are sufficient and adequate.

Q What sort of guarantees do you have to cover that?

SEC. GATES: Well, I would say it's based both on our own understanding of the security arrangements that the Pakistanis have for their weapons and their capabilities in their laboratories and so on, but also the assurances that we have been given by the Pakistanis.

Q Were you baffled by the -- President Obama's envoy, Richard Holbrooke, when he was asked about progress and how he would measure progress and he said, "We'll know it when we see it"?

SEC. GATES: I probably would have answered the question differently.

Q How would you have answered it?

SEC. GATES: I would have answered it: I believe that success or progress will be as -- when we see the Afghan national security forces, the army and the police, assuming a greater and greater role in protecting the -- in security operations protecting Afghanistan and the Afghan people, so that we can recede first into an advisory role and then leave altogether.

So in a way it's somewhat comparable to the situation in Iraq, where we have -- where our role has become less and less prominent, where the Iraqis have taken a more and more prominent role in protecting their own security. And I think that that's how we will measure -- be able to measure -- one way we will be able to measure success in Afghanistan is as we see the Afghan security forces taking a more and more prominent and leading role in protecting their own security.

Q Well, I'm glad you given me a very smooth transition into Iraq, because I would like to talk about Iraq for a little while. The latest press conference that you gave together with Admiral Mike Mullen, you talked about the analogies that people that often make between Afghanistan and Iraq. And you said that those analogies are very often misplaced. They're wrong, you said.

But you said there's one fundamental similarity between Iraq and Afghanistan and -- I'm sorry. You said -- let me take that again. You said the analogies are often wrong, and the fundamental difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that in Iraq, there has been a strong central government; in Afghanistan, you said, there's never been a strong central government.

And in terms of fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan, that's obviously making your goal a lot more difficult. How satisfied -- that the Iraqi central government, led by Nouri Maliki, at the present time, can hold the country together after you leave?

SEC. GATES: I think we have real confidence that they can do that. And I think the best evidence that this sense of Iraqi nationalism has returned is that al Qaeda has made very strong efforts in recent weeks and months to try and provoke a renewal of the sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shi'a in Iraq. And what has -- through suicide bombers.

And what has been interesting and encouraging is that they have failed in that effort. The Shi'a understand this is al Qaeda trying to provoke that kind of a conflict, and they're having none of it. And so there has not been a renewal of the sectarian violence.

Our generals have very high regard for the Iraqi army and increasingly the Iraqi police. And I think we would not have felt comfortable agreeing to the arrangements that we have to pull out of Iraqi cities to put a deadline on the withdrawal of American combat troops if we didn't have confidence in the Iraqis. And I think General Odierno would say they have developed better and faster than he would have anticipated.

And so we are very encouraged by developments in Iraq with respect to the security situation, despite these suicide bombings that we think are mostly the fault or the efforts of al Qaeda.

Q Well, a lot of the people in the region will look at Iraq, post-2003, now that you say that al Qaeda was -- has been trying to stoke up sectarian strife in Iraq -- a lot of people in the region will look at 2003 and what the United States did post-2003 in Iraq and they say, "Well, actually, that was the engine of sectarian strife in Iraq in the first place."

SEC. GATES: Well, I'm -- I wasn't in government at the time, and I am no expert on Iraq before I came into government. I wouldn't pretend to be an expert now either, but --

Q But would you say the U.S. -- getting out of Iraq would necessarily put an end to sectarian strife or help put an end to sectarian strife in Iraq? Or would it actually increase the prospects of sectarian strife there?

SEC. GATES: I think that what we have already seen in Iraq, despite the provocations by al Qaeda, that Iraqis are ready to move beyond the violence of the last several years and to grow their economy and to have peace. I think that's why you have not seen a renewed sectarian violence, and that's why we are comfortable with the arrangements in which we have withdrawn from the cities and in which we will withdraw all of our combat troops by the end of August next year. We are very comfortable with that, and that means we do not believe there will be a renewal of the sectarian violence with our departure.

Q And after you leave, my understanding is that President Obama pledged that the United States will not build any permanent military bases in Iraq. Is that pledge -- does that pledge still stand?

SEC. GATES: Absolutely.

Q Now, how do you define permanent? Because bases in Germany, they've been there for about 60 years now; in Korea for a similar period of time. How do you define permanent? How do you define temporary?

SEC. GATES: Temporary is based on the fact that another part of this agreement is that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

That is the agreement that we have with the Iraqi government. All U.S. forces. No bases. No forces. That's the --

Q Unless the Iraqis ask you to stay longer.

SEC. GATES: Unless there is some new agreement or some new negotiation, which would clearly be on Iraqi terms. But we will not have any permanent bases in Iraq. We have no interest in permanent bases in Iraq. And we are now planning on withdrawing all American military forces by the end of 2011.

Q Sir, I would like to take another break, with your permission. When we come back, I would like to talk about Iran, among other things. (Makes remarks in Arabic.)


Q (Makes remarks in Arabic.) Mr. Gates, welcome yet again to the show. We left off the previous segment talking about Iraq. And I wanted to put it to you that a lot of people, including some of your closet allies in the Gulf, think that really, come to think of it, at the end of the day, the real winner after the invasion of 2003 is Iran. And you have a big problem with Iran, if you listen to all politicians here in Washington.

SEC. GATES: Well, I think Iran has been a challenge for the United States and for the international community, for that matter, for 30 years.

I think that a strong and democratic Iraq and particularly one with a multi-sectarian government becomes a barrier to Iranian influence, not a bridge for it.

And so I think in the short term, perhaps Iran's position was strengthened somewhat. But I think if you look to the longer term and the role that Iraq can play in the region going forward, I think that Iran's position may well be diminished.

Q But a lot of people feel that you took out one fundamental bastion against Iranian influence, in the region, and that is the regime of Saddam Hussein. You changed the political configuration in the country, bringing a Shi'a government to power.

Everybody knows that there are Iraqi politicians in the Iraqi government who are very close to Iran or have some sort of sensibility that makes them close to the government of Iran.

How is that going to be a bastion against Iranian influence, even in the long term?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think, first of all, we've seen, over the past year or so, a genuine assertion of Iraqi nationalism, from Prime Minister Maliki and from other leaders inside -- inside Iraq.

I have no doubt at the end of the day that the leaders in Iraq are first and foremost Iraqis. After all, none of them have forgotten the eight-year war that they fought with Saddam Hussein. And they haven't forgotten that Saddam Hussein started that war.

So I think -- I think that by all accounts that we can see and the actions that we have seen the government of Iraq take, including -- for example, Prime Minister Maliki's offensive in the Basra area, over a year ago, made clear that they are most concerned with maintaining Iraqi sovereignty.

If the United States has learned anything in the last year and as we've negotiated the Strategic Framework Agreement with the Iraqis, it is that the Iraqis are very sensitive about their sovereignty and, as with almost any other country, are not going to tolerate other countries trying to interfere in their internal affairs.

Q Well, Mr. Secretary, let's assume for a minute that in the short term or even immediate -- medium term, that the Iranians have strengthened their hand in Iran and -- in Iraq, and that that's going to change. The nuclear issue -- Iran's nuclear issue -- hasn't Iran being able to increase its influence in neighboring Iraq strengthened its hand in dealing with the West over its nuclear program?

SEC. GATES: No, I don't agree with that. I think that the situation in Iraq has little bearing on Iran and its nuclear program.

Q Can you, for example, in the case of the Israelis, resort to military actions, as they seem to be itching to do -- military action against Iranian nuclear facilities -- can you guarantee that the Iranians will not use Iraq to retaliate against the United States, for example?

SEC. GATES: Well, I'm not going to address hypothetical situations. I mean, our view is that there is still an opportunity for diplomacy and political and economic pressures to bring about a change of policy in Iran. So getting into hypotheticals about military action, I think, doesn't take us very far. And I'm confident that we still have some opportunities in that area.

Q Okay. I'll move away from the hypothetical. Now, if you say you still have some time to maneuver in that area, to what extent are you reading from the same hymn page as the Israelis in terms of saying that you still have some time to maneuver in that area?

SEC. GATES: Every country looks at a given situation through the lens of its own security. Our view, and the view that we have shared, I might say, strongly with all of our friends and allies, in the region as well as elsewhere, is that the way to deal with the Iranian nuclear program at this point is through diplomatic and economic efforts.

Q Sir, the issue of Iran and Israel has obviously and is rattling a lot of countries in the region. The Israelis, the gulf states, at least the governments who seem to be thinking more and more about buying more and more weapons.

And indeed there have been some sales authorized by the United States government. Some estimates for example put the weapons packages, to the gulf states and Israel, at about $100 billion.

How much substance is there to that?

SEC. GATES: Well, that figure sounds very high to me.

But I think -- I think there's a central question or a central point here to be made. And it has to do with both our friends and allies in the region, our Arab friends and allies, as well as the Iranian nuclear program. And that is, one of the pathways to getting the Iranians to change their approach, on the nuclear issue, is to persuade them that moving down that path will actually jeopardize their security, not enhance it.

And so the more that our Arab friends and allies can strengthen their security capabilities, the more they can strengthen their cooperation both with each other and with us, I think, sends the signal to the Iranians that this path that they're on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it.

And so that's one of the reasons why I think our relationship with these countries and our security cooperation with them is so important.

Q Now, I mentioned $100 billion. And you said that that doesn't sound right. What sounds right to you as a figure?

SEC. GATES: I honestly don't know.

Q But there are a lot of weapons being asked for by countries in the region.

SEC. GATES: We have a very broad foreign military sales program and obviously with most of our friends and allies out there. But the arrangements that are being negotiated right now; I just honestly don't know the cumulative total.

Q Okay.

Now, you're asking the Iranians, and this is the feeling of people in the region, not necessarily governments, but you're asking the Iranians to give up their intentions to build nuclear weapons.

They are saying they're not trying to build nuclear weapons. On the other hand, a lot of people in the region feel that you know that the Israelis do have nuclear weapons, and they say: Why doesn't the West start with Israel, who is known for sure to hold and to possess nuclear weapons, rather than with the Iranians, who are suspected of having these nuclear weapons?

What do you say to that argument?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, it's the Iranian leadership that has said that they want to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. Those threats have not been made in the other direction. It is the Iranian government that is in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions with respect to these programs. And so the focus needs to be on the country that is thwarting the will of the international community and the United Nations.

Q But the -- you've decided that the rhetoric of the Iranians reflects the reality of what's going on in Iran in terms of this nuclear weapon. Isn't that a leap of faith?

SEC. GATES: Well, we obviously have information in terms of what the Iranians are doing. We also have what the Iranians themselves have said. So we only are taking them at their word.

Q So you know for sure that they are working on a nuclear bomb.

SEC. GATES: I won't go that far. But clearly they have elements of their nuclear program that are in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. We want them to adhere to those resolutions.

And we are willing to acknowledge the right of the Iranian government, the Iranian people to have a peaceful nuclear program if it's intended for the production of electric power and so on. And what is central, then, is trying to persuade the Iranians to agree to that and then to verification procedures under the IAEA that gives us confidence that it is indeed a peaceful nuclear program and not a weaponization program.

The truth of the matter is, if Iran proceeds with a nuclear weapons program, it may well spark an arms race, a real arms race, and potentially a nuclear arms race in the entire region, so it's in the interest of all countries for Iran to agree to arrangements that allow a peaceful nuclear program and give the international community confidence that that's all they're doing.

Q But the Obama administration seems to have a difficult circle to square, because on the one hand, they're saying that they want improved relations with the Muslim world. On the other hand, any pressure on Iran is seen by people in the Muslim world -- and again, I put the emphasis on people, not necessarily the governments -- that the U.S. is not actually genuine in wanting to improve those relations, because they say Israel has nuclear weapons and the U.S. is not doing anything about it.

SEC. GATES: The focus is on which country is in violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolutions. The pressure on Iran is simply to be a good member of the international community. It's -- the neighbors around Iran, our Arab friends and allies, are concerned about what is going on in Iran, and not just the governments. And so the question is, how does Iran become a member in good standing of the international community? That's in the interests of everybody.

Q Sir, I've run out of time, but there's one last issue that I would like to raise with you, with your permission, and that is the relations between the United States and Latin America. As you know, there's been a lot of angry noises coming out of Latin America over the issue of U.S. bases in Colombia. How much of a problem is the issue of U.S. bases in Colombia to the United States and to its relations with Latin America?

SEC. GATES: I think it's an issue that's being exploited by certain governments down there, such as the Venezuelan government. I think, for most of the continent, it's not a problem.

These are not American bases. This is a cooperative arrangement negotiated with the government of Colombia for counter-narcotics purposes. That's all it is, nothing more. No permanent U.S. base -- no U.S. base at all -- but our use of Colombian facilities in cooperation with the Colombians in the counter-narcotics arena.

Q But doesn't it concern you that even somebody like President Lula of Brazil, who is not exactly renowned for being over-vocal in his criticism of the United States, has actually been quite vocal recently in terms of criticizing what is described by President Chavez, for example, of Venezuela, as you said, as belligerent intentions on the part of the United States in Latin America?

SEC. GATES: Well, there clearly are not belligerent intentions on the part of the United States. And I believe that when the other governments that are concerned in Latin -- that may be concerned in South America fully understand the nature of the cooperation agreement with the Colombians, they will understand that this is a very limited arrangement, tightly focused on counternarcotics.

Q Mr. Gates, thank you so very much. There were a lot of other topics that we would have liked to raise with you. We ran out of time. We're extremely grateful for the time that you've given us. Thank you.

SEC. GATES: Thank you.

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