I’m not a big fan of speculation about Who Leaked What And Why, because we’re so rarely in a position to actually know. A more fruitful enterprise is to speculate on likely effects. So it is with Secretary Gates’s January memo about lacuna in U.S. strategy toward Iranian advances in uranium enrichment. Look at what it supposedly identifies as the problem:

in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.

In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.

That’s just plain a real problem under the NPT. Now consider what’s about to happen beyond the next few weeks’ debate over an Iran sanctions resolution at the United Nations Security Council. In May, the U.N. will convene a discussion among NPT signatories about how to strengthen the provisions of the nuclear treaty. Its focus, among other things like international nuke fuel banks, will concern verification and enforcement mechanisms, including how to build in greater “early warning” through the IAEA about when states drift into noncompliance but not outright breach, and what diplomatic actions that danger ought to trigger.

In other words, a precursor to the problem Gates identifies in this memo. (Or, if you prefer, the problem identified in Gates’ memo is a symptom of the category of NPT-lacunae that the conference will address.)