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Chuck Hagel’s ambiguous stance on dealing with Iran

The Washington Post

By Max Fisher

Former U.S. senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is at the top of President Obama’s list for the next secretary of defense, according to a report by Bloomberg News. Rumors of a Hagel appointment have circulated for some time; Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reported two weeks ago that Hagel was being vetted for State or Defense. And now comes news that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has withdrawn her name from consideration for secretary of state, making both the State and Defense jobs a little less competitive. Any candidate for either job is likely to face scrutiny for their position on Iran, so it’s worth evaluating what Hagel’s said so far. And the picture is not totally clear.

Hagel, like Obama, has consistently emphasized diplomacy first in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. But, while Obama has long been clear that he considers military strikes a viable last resort, Hagel’s statements on the matter have been far more ambiguous. The now-retired GOP senator publicly opposed a strike on Iran during the Bush administration, but Hagel appears to have possibly changed his position since Obama came into office in 2009. Earlier this year, Hagel signed his name to a five-author Washington Post op-ed that called strikes an acceptable option. That said, I’ve been unable to find any clear statements supporting or opposing strikes since Bush left office.

It’s worth noting – as many Republicans are sure to do if Obama nominates Hagel – that he declared his opposition to a U.S. strike on Iran several times during Bush’s presidency. It’s possible that Hagel has since changed his position, perhaps due to changing facts on the ground as Iran’s nuclear development has grown and diplomatic efforts have seen setbacks. In a March interview with Al-Monitor, Hagel conspicuously avoided answering a direct question on whether he thinks the United States should bomb Iran as a last resort.

Here’s what I could find of Hagel’s previous statements on Iran and how to respond to its nuclear developments; some of them come from an earlier post by Foreign Policy’s Joshua Keating. Following are some of the key quotes.

November 2005, at the Council on Foreign Relations: “Any lasting solution to Iran’s nuclear weapons program will also require the United States’ direct discussions with Iran. The United States is capable of engaging Iran in direct dialogue without sacrificing any of its interests or objectives.”

April 2006, while visiting Islamabad: “I would say that a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option. … I believe a political settlement will be the answer. Not a military settlement. All these issues will require a political settlement.”

August 2006, in a profile in the Lincoln Journal Star, his home state’s paper: “Some in this administration want some excuse to take military action.”

October 2007, in an alleged private letter to President Bush: “Dear Mr. President: I write to urge you to consider pursuing direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran.”

March 2012, in an interview with Al-Monitor: “There will be a lot of killing. These things start and you can’t control. They escalate. They always do and they always will. … I don’t think that we are necessarily locked into one of two options. And that’s the way it’s presented. We are great in this country and in our politics of responding to false choices; we love false choices.

September 2012, in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with four others: “War with Iran is not inevitable, but U.S. national security would be seriously threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran. … 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. Since the consequences of a military attack are so significant for U.S. interests, we seek to ensure that the spectrum of objectives, as well as potential consequences, is understood.”