Foreign Policy Blogs

The Defense Secretary and Iran: Hagel Who?


Source: The Washington Times

A controversial nomination, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel was sworn in as Secretary of Defense on February 27, 2013. Prior to assuming office, questions regarding the Republican’s perspectives and policy prescriptions for critical Middle Eastern issues were paramount in opposition’s hesitation for Mr. Hagel to join President Obama’s administration. While the 24th Secretary of Defense is less than a month into his role, issues affecting American defense continue to mount, including the perceived threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran becoming nuclear. As second in the American military hierarchy, Secretary of Defense Hagel will undoubtedly be influential in steering the course of America’s military might, should it be used, to thwart Iran from becoming nuclear. A lack of unanimous consensus regarding the danger of Iran crossing the nuclear threshold among politicians and the general public sets the stage for an interesting analysis of Hagel’s perspectives on the various components of the Iranian threat.

Critics scorn politicians for altering their political views. However, just as the average person’s opinions can be modified, whether the result of alterations in external circumstances or the acquisition of additional knowledge, politicians’ convictions may evolve for similar reasons. Domestic and world affairs constantly unfold and it should be expected that people evaluate events and circumstances and modify their outlooks accordingly. As such, analysis is imperative to understand why politicians’ views change, or more appropriately evolve, over time.

Prior to his confirmation as Secretary of Defense, scrutiny befell Chuck Hagel’s voting record and his resolution references for critical Middle Eastern issues, including the security issues raised by Iran’s nuclear program and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s support of internationally recognized terrorist organizations. A proponent of a diplomacy first policy toward resolving international issues with Iran, Hagel has been accused of not supporting sanctions and of maintaining an ambiguous stance on the use of military strikes. As head of the Department of Defense, Hagel’s unease with using military force, as a last resort, something President Obama maintains a viable option, and voting record against economic sanctions, maintained by the Obama administration, raise questions about Hagel’s commitment to resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis.

The Emergency Committee for Israel’s ominous advertisement opposing Hagel’s confirmation as Secretary of Defense argued against his appointment, citing quotations from publications and Hagel’s voting record. The commercial identified three arguments to discredit Hagel as a viable candidate.

  1. “Chuck Hagel doesn’t like sanctions.” –Foreign Policy, December 17, 2012
  2. “Hagel voted against labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist Group.” –The Daily Beast, December 13, 2012
  3. Hagel says, “Military action [toward Iran] is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” –Washington Post, December 13, 2012

The advertisement called Hagel “not a responsible option” for Secretary of Defense.

1. Sanctions

As critics harp on surface facts to under stand Hagel’s positions toward Iran, it is essential to delve further into the logic behind his decisions. A senator from 1999 to 2009, Hagel consistently voted against unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran. Among the measures he opposed was the 2001 “Iran and Libya Sanctions Extension Act.” Passed in July 2001, it extended the “Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996,” effectively extending sanctions on American companies investing in both countries for an additional five years. Hagel was one of two senators to oppose the initiative. While the Senator voiced his agreement with the intended effects of the measure, Hagel ultimately concluded the unilateral measure ineffective.

He said:

I fully agree with the objectives of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). Combating proliferation and terrorism must remain at the forefront of our foreign policy. I do not agree, however, with a “face value” policy that seeks to combat these twin scourges unilaterally. ILSA cannot work. It has not worked. Right objectives, but wrong policy.

Hagel ultimately supported the overall objective of ILSA by recommending a two-year extension for the 1996 ILSA. Identifying unilateral economic action as ineffective and counterproductive, Hagel instead advocated for multilateral sanctions.

In a private October 17, 2007 letter to President Bush, Hagel expressed his strong desire for the use of carrots versus sticks to deal with Iran. He wrote, “I write to urge you to consider pursuing direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran.” He continued, identifying the flaws in America’s policy and needed changes:

I am increasingly concerned, however, that this diplomatic strategy is stalling. There are growing differences with our international partners. Concerns remain that the United States’ actual objectives is regime change in Iran, not a change in Iran’s behavior. Prospects for further action in the UN Security Council have grown dim, and we appear increasingly reliant on a single-track effort to expand financial pressure on Iran outside of the UN Security Council…Now is the time for the United States to active consider when and how to offer direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with Iran. The offer should be made even as we continue to work with our allies on financial pressure, in the UN Security Council on a third sanctions resolution, and in the region to support those Middle East countries who share our concerns with Iran.

The following year, in 2008, Hagel voted against the United States Senate Committee on Banking’s “Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2008,” which would extend sanctions to financial institutions and countries that conduct business with Iran. The bill also encouraged the Bush administration to classify the Central Bank of Iran as a terrorism supporter, something that would lay the groundwork for future sanctions. Voting against the proposed legislation, Hagel cited renewed nuclear talks among major world powers and Iran as a sign of progress that would be hindered by enacting additional sanctions. Further identifying the flaws in such policy, Hagel stated the bill had repercussions for other parties. He said the bill “does not sanction Iran. It directly sanctions [U.S.] allies, friends, and others.”

While Hagel’s voting record superficially shows the Senator’s unwillingness to impose sanctions, further analysis of the specific reasons supporting his decisions illustrates a decision-making process that calculates the overarching and long-term effects of sanctions.

2. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

Unlike other military units that defend borders and maintain order, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, established after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, protects the country’s Islamic system. The elite, ideologically charged military branch has come under repeated international scrutiny for internal and domestic activities, including training Hamas and Hezbollah. With an exponential increase in government involvement since 2004, the corps has become one of the most influential groups in Iran. Despite controversy over the Revolutionary Guard’s influence in Iran and external activities, Hagel voted against the 2007 Kyl-Lieberman Amendment that would designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Senator Barack Obama and Senator Joe Biden were among the twenty-two senators who opposed the legislation.

Despite agreeing with the classification of the Revolutionary Guard acting as a terrorist organization, Hagel voted against the bill for other reasons. Justifying his position, Hagel explained his fear that the legislation would serve as a source of legitimization for the Bush administration to execute a military attack against Iran.

In a November 2007 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hagel clarified his feelings toward Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. He said:

In the Middle East of the 21st Century, Iran will be a key center of gravity… and remain a significant regional power. The United States cannot change that reality. America’s strategic thinking and policies for the Middle East must acknowledge the role of Iran today and well into the future. To acknowledge that reality in no way confuses Iran’s dangerous, destabilizing and threatening behavior in the region. Our differences with Iran are real. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and continues to provide material support to Hezbollah and Hamas. The President of Iran publicly threatens Israel’s existence and is attempting to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has not helped stabilize the current chaos in Iraq and is responsible for weapons and explosives being used against U.S. military forces in Iraq.

Although Hagel agreed, in theory, with the tenets of the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, he ultimately believed the legislation a “backdoor method of gaining congressional validation for military action.”

3. Military Action

During his tenure in the United States Senate, Hagel maintained a negative stance on military action against Iran, even as a last resort. Now, as the primary defense policy advisor to President Obama, it seems beneficial that he is slow to support actions that could lead the United States into a costly war or result in detrimental military retaliation against America and/or her allies, neither of which the United States can afford financially or politically.

In his November 2007 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hagel added to his identification of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism by explaining his rationale for supporting a diplomatic approach in dealing with Iran.

He said:

America’s military might alone cannot successfully address these challenges or achieve any level of sustainable stability with Iran. The United States must employ a comprehensive strategy that uses all of its tools of influence within its foreign policy arsenal– political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military.

Maintaining a consistent opinion that military might is not the best option for resolving the Iranian situation and would ultimately lead to more security issues, Hagel more recently asserted military strikes, although not preferable, are an option. In a September 2012 co-authored opinion piece for the Washington Post, Hagel stated,

Our position is fully consistent with the policy of presidents for more than a decade of keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force, thereby increasing pressure on Iran while working toward a political solution.

Although a slight change in rhetoric from his earlier sentiments regarding force, Hagel’s 2012 verbiage illustrates the evolution of opinions over the course of five years that included several rounds of failed international diplomatic endeavors.

An irresponsible choice?                                                                  

The accusation that Chuck Hagel was not a responsible option for Secretary of Defense is a superficially lined argument. Politicians are not without critics, and Hagel is no exception. While there is truth to the opposition’s cursory criticisms, it is essential to understand the underlying reasons behind Hagel’s opinions about action against Iran. After careful analysis, critics would be more justified to label Hagel’s perspectives prudent than controversial.



Allison Kushner

Allison Kushner received three undergraduate degrees from Boston University and a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Security and Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University. She has spent time living and traveling throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. A former political speechwriter, Allison has taught college level Political Science and International Relations in the U.S. and China. She continues to be engaged in public speaking activities at home and abroad.

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