By DAVID E. SANGER
Dealing with Iran is complicated, but President Obama’s policy on the question of whether a nuclear-armed Iran could be successfully “contained’’ – the way the Soviet Union was during the cold war – is simple.
His answer is no.
But in the weeks of preparation for his Senate confirmation hearing to be defense secretary on Thursday, either no one explained that to Chuck Hagel, Mr. Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, or he forgot it. And so on his first outing, Mr. Hagel fell immediately into the trap that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and several other administration officials have complained about in recent years. He became the latest official to send what many inside the administration fear has been an inconsistent and confusing message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, about whether the Obama administration would, if there was no other option, take military measures to prevent Iran from possessing a weapon.
“It’s somewhere between baffling and incomprehensible,” a member of Mr. Obama’s own team of advisers on Iran said on Thursday night when asked about Mr. Hagel’s stumbling performance on the question during the all-day hearing. The worry was evident in the voice of the official, who would not speak on the record while criticizing the performance of the president’s nominee. For those who question whether the no-containment cornerstone of the Obama approach to Tehran is for real, or just diplomatic rhetoric, Mr. Hagel clearly muddled the message, he said.
Mr. Hagel’s flubbing of the answer was even more remarkable because in his prepared remarks to the committee, which were carefully vetted by the White House and then e-mailed to reporters before the hearing, he got the president’s position exactly right. “As I said in the past many times, all options must be on the table,’’ Mr. Hagel said, in a statement meant to clean up past comments by the former Nebraska senator suggesting that an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would be so disastrous that it was not a feasible alternative. “My policy has always been the same as the president’s, one of prevention, not of containment. And the president has made clear that is the policy of our government.’’
So far, so good.
But then, Mr. Hagel went down a different road. “I support the president’s strong position on containment,” he said, appearing, perhaps by imprecision, to suggest that the president’s view was that a nuclear Iran could be contained. (Mr. Obama has gone on to explain that containment would fail because other players in the neighborhood – probably led by Saudi Arabia – would race for the bomb as soon as Iran had one.)
Then an aide slipped a piece of paper to Mr. Hagel. He glanced at it, then said: “By the way, I’ve just been handed a note that I misspoke and said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, it meant to say that obviously — on his position on containment — we don’t have a position on containment.”
That made it worse. So the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, tried to rescue Mr. Hagel. “Just to make sure your correction is clear, we do have a position on containment: which is we do not favor containment.’’
Why might any of this matter? Perhaps it won’t; it could just be another in the litany of Iran slips, like the time in December 2011 when Leon E. Panetta, the man Mr. Hagel hopes to replace at the Pentagon, described how any attack on Iran would strengthen the country’s position in the region and help it shed its pariah status. (He was probably right, but it made it sound as if the defense secretary really thought there were no military options on the table.)
But Mr. Hagel’s stumbling caused heartburn inside the administration because it made him appear unfamiliar with his brief. And even before he spoke, American credibility on the question of whether it would allow nations to get the bomb has been less than impressive.
The United States warned Pakistan against pursuing the development of a nuclear weapon during the Clinton administration. It conducted a nuclear test in 1998, responding to an Indian test, and both countries briefly suffered American economic sanctions. Then, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the sanctions were lifted, Pakistan became a “major non-NATO ally’’ and India signed a commercial nuclear agreement with the United States.
Then there is North Korea. President George W. Bush said he would never “tolerate’’ a North Korea with nuclear weapons. North Korea set off its first nuclear test in 2006, and its second a few months after Mr. Obama became president. Satellite photographs suggest that a third may be only days or weeks away.
That record, many believe, could prompt Iran’s leaders to conclude that once countries get a weapon, or the capability to build one, America shrugs its shoulders and declares that containment will work fine. Mr. Hagel raised that possibility in a 2007 speech – though he stopped short of endorsing it – which is why the administration wanted to make sure he got on the same page with the president. He didn’t, and there is little doubt that the Iranians noticed.