WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday that the severe sanctions the West is threatening against Iran could force a change in the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions, especially since the country is already under severe economic distress.
Speaking as officials from six world powers prepare to meet with Iranian negotiators this week to discuss Tehran's nuclear program, Gates noted that the unemployment rate for Iran's young people is 40%, and asserted that past economic sanctions "are having an impact."
Severe additional sanctions could cause the Iranians to change their policies, Gates said on ABC's "This Week."
Gates played down, as he has in the past, the value of military strikes, saying at most they could only retard Iran's nuclear program by an estimated one to three years.
"The reality is, there is no military option that does anything other than buy time," he said in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" program.
Despite international outrage over the disclosure last week that Iran has been building a secret uranium enrichment plant near Qom, contentious debate is expected among world powers over the wisdom and efficacy of further economic sanctions.
The threat of Israeli military strikes on Iran hangs over the discussion of the nuclear program. Gates said U.S. officials are trying to persuade Israel to refrain from military action while the international efforts to negotiate an end to the suspected nuclear weapons program are underway.
"We've obviously been in close touch with them, as our ally and friend, and continue to urge them to let this diplomatic and economic sanctions path play out," he said on CNN.
Iran, meanwhile, announced that it had successfully test-fired short-range missiles during military drills by the Revolutionary Guard, in an apparent show of force ahead of Thursday's talks. And today, state television said the nation had tested medium-range missiles, Reuters reported.
The tests came at the end of weeklong military exercises planned before last week's disclosure of the underground nuclear site.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged Sunday that the sanctions that have been imposed by the United Nations Security Council and individual countries are "leaky."
But she said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that world powers have learned more about how to use sanctions in their recent effort to halt North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Asked whether Russia, a key player on the Iran issue, would join the effort to impose sanctions despite its economic interests in Iran, Clinton made no promises.
But she said that Russia "has begun to see many more indications that Iran is engaging in threatening behavior" and has been "very supportive" of the international sanctions on North Korea.
Clinton said that in this week's meeting, the burden will be on Iran to prove its assertions that its program is for only peaceful purposes. She said that nothing short of opening up the facilities to inspection would do.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.