SANTIAGO, Chile – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday that Russian cooperation on U.S. priorities from the Afghan war to the diplomatic squeeze on Iran is at risk if the Senate doesn't pass a new nuclear arms treaty.
Gates also said lawmakers' failure to approve the pact would undermine the momentum for modernizing and overhauling the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
"There would be significant consequences" beyond the specifics of the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, he said while in Chile for defense meetings.
The U.S. would lose the firsthand knowledge it now gets from onsite inspections in Russia, Gates said. The wider political fallout is hard to predict, he said, but could mean less Russian cooperation with overland supply routes for the war in Afghanistan.
He noted that Russia recently approved his request to allow special mine-resistant troop carriers to cross Russia on their way to the Afghanistan front lines.
Gates also said Russia had voted with the U.S. and other allies to impose the latest round of U.N. penalties against Iran over its nuclear program. Russia is a partner with Iran in a civilian nuclear power project and generally has been less concerned than the U.S. that Iran may be hiding a bomb program.
The Pentagon chief gave a forceful defense of the treaty against Republican complaints that it limits U.S. options for future missile defense plans.
"Anything that we have in mind now or in the years to come that ... we have even thought about is not prohibited," Gates said with frustration.
"The reality is, despite what anybody says, I as secretary of defense and the entire uniformed leadership of the American military, believe this treaty is in our national security interests."
Republicans led by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona say they won't consider the treaty until the administration budgets adequate money for the nation's nuclear arsenal and the laboratories that oversee them. The treaty would reduce the limits on U.S. and Russian warheads, and Kyl says he needs assurances that the remaining nuclear arsenal is modernized and effective.
The administration has pledged $85 billion to maintain the nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years, in an attempt to address Kyl's concerns. Democrats might be less willing to go along with that plan if Republicans stall the treaty.