In first test, Hagel toes administration line on Iran, Israel

In first test, Hagel toes administration line on Iran, Israel

In written statements ahead of Senate confirmation hearings, defense nominee warns ‘the window for diplomacy with Iran is closing’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Chuck Hagel in the White House on January 7, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Chuck Hagel in the White House on January 7, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

NEW YORK — Any observers expecting sparks to fly at Chuck Hagel’s first confirmation hearing Thursday may be disappointed, if the former Nebraska senator’s 112-page written response to senators’ questions publicized Wednesday is any indication.

Calling Iran a “significant threat” and promising to expand security cooperation with Israel, Hagel’s answers to questions on 114 separate topics offered the most complete presentation of his views yet on a broad range of defense and foreign policy issues.

If the hearings reflect the answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee offered in writing, Hagel, the defense chief nominee, will show few surprises during the confirmation process that would put him out of sync with the Obama administration, including on issues related to Iran or Israel.

Hagel’s two terms in the Senate were marked by sharp dissent from the foreign policy of his fellow Republicans, and his conservative views on social issues have raised concerns about his nomination from some influential Democrats. Hagel addressed those concerns directly in his written answers.

Among other things, Hagel seemed to reverse his past views on the Iranian nuclear program. Also, despite his well-known social conservatism, Hagel promised to uphold the Obama administration’s efforts toward greater equality for gay and lesbian service members in America’s armed forces.

Hagel was particularly forceful on Iran, a country mentioned 30 times in his responses, more than any other except the United States itself.

“Iran poses a significant threat to the United States, our allies and partners, and our interests in the region and globally,” Hagel wrote to the Armed Services Committee.

“Iran continues to pursue an illicit nuclear program that threatens to provoke a regional arms race and undermine the global non-proliferation regime. Iran is also one of the main state-sponsors of terrorism and could spark conflict, including against US personnel and interests. Iran is also actively investing in the development of a range of conventional capabilities, including air, missile, and naval assets that have generated regional anxieties and could threaten our interests and personnel in the region,” he wrote.

President Obama’s strategy, which has included severe economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of the Teheran regime, “has credibly, and smartly in my opinion, made clear that all options are on the table. I believe that this strategy has made it clear to Iran that the United States will do what it must to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and I will continue to implement this policy if confirmed.”

He promised to “focus intently on ensuring that US military (sic) is in fact prepared for any contingency” related to US policy toward Iran.

In recent weeks, senior Israeli sources have indicated to The Times of Israel that while Hagel has in the past disagreed with Israeli assessments of the threat posed by Iran’s drive toward nuclear capabilities, Israel believes Hagel’s past skepticism may be an advantage in the effort against Iran, as it would confer added international credibility to any US military action against Teheran.

But Hagel’s answers included carrots alongside the sticks, if Iran agreed to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

“If Iran lives up to international obligations,” Hagel wrote, “it should have a path to a more prosperous and productive relationship with the international community and eventual rejoining of the community of nations. The other choice is clear as well – if Iran continues to flout its international obligations, it should continue to face severe and growing consequences. While there is time and space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, the window is closing. Iran needs to demonstrate it is prepared to negotiate seriously.”

Hagel wrote glowingly of US-Israeli security cooperation, saying he was “proud” of the two countries’ missile defense ties. “The importance of these efforts came to the forefront with Israel’s recent Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. Throughout the eight days of the operation, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) launched over 1,506 rockets into Israel. Focusing only on these that posed a real threat to populated areas, Iron Dome intercepted 421 rockets with an overall intercept rate of approximately 85% – saving the lives of countless Israeli civilians,” he wrote.

If confirmed, he said, “I will work to continue and expand this cooperation.”

He also expressed “concern” over frayed Israeli-Turkish ties. Turkey is “a critical NATO ally,” while “Israel is a key security partner of the United States.” If confirmed, he promised to “work to ensure that the US continues, in diplomatic channels and in defense contacts, to encourage both Turkey and Israel to take the steps necessary to resolve their dispute and work together to address common regional challenges.”

The responses addressed a broad series of issues, from veterans’ benefits and rights for gay service members to missile defense in Europe, space security and Afghanistan.

While his comments on Iran will likely be comforting to officials in Jerusalem, some of Hagel’s answers on other issues reflected an Obama administration that remains deeply averse to new military commitments.

Asked what factors he would consider when contemplating the use of force, he seemed to set a high bar.

“Committing our troops to any military operation is a grave decision,” he cautioned, “and one I, if confirmed, would make carefully and cautiously.”

“Our nation learned a number of lessons in Iraq,” Hagel wrote. One of these was that “we must think very carefully before we commit our Armed Forces to battlefields abroad. Our forces deserve policies and planning worthy of the sacrifices they make in combat.”

The lessons from Iraq included “setting clear and realistic strategic objectives” and “appreciating the limitations of military force and the necessity of engaging all levels of national power (political, economic, cultural, intelligence),” he wrote.

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