Hagel pick could signal U.S. policy shift on Iran

Defense Department

President Obama might be signaling plans to shift his administration's approach to an entrenched dispute over Iran's nuclear program by nominating a noted critic of hard-line policies to lead the Defense Department, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator and other expert observers said on Tuesday.

Obama has insisted he is ready to curb Iran's atomic ambitions through military force if diplomatic outreach and intensifying sanctions do not yield an agreement to resolve concerns that elements of Iran's ostensibly peaceful atomic program are geared toward development of a nuclear-weapon capability.

Washington and Tehran have been "inching towards a confrontation" as the United States has sought to pressure Iran through isolation and covert action, said Hossein Mousavian, a one-time spokesman for Iran's nuclear negotiating team. However, the nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska could create "an opportunity to bring a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma" if the Senate confirms his nomination to the top Pentagon post and the designation of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to become the next secretary of State, the former envoy told Global Security Newswire.

A second issue specialist said the requested appointments would be likely to alter "the configuration of the debate inside the administration."

The nominations "may be an indication of [Obama's] willingness to fight to create political space for his policies to a greater extent than he was during his first [term]," Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, said by telephone. He noted Kerry’s 2009 assertion that prior U.S. opposition to any Iranian enrichment of uranium -- a process with both civilian and military applications -- was “ridiculous.”

Hagel's nomination suggests Obama "rates the military option on Iran even lower than he indicates in public," said Peter Feaver, a political science and public policy expert at Duke University. In 2006, Hagel said "a military strike against Iran ... is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”

In announcing Hagel's nomination on Monday, Obama referred to the two-term senator's record of defying "conventional wisdom" while in Congress. Hagel and one GOP colleague were alone in opposing one set of Iran penalties in 2001, and the Nebraska lawmaker received credit for preventing another sanctions proposal from advancing through the upper chamber in 2008, Foreign Policy magazine noted. Hagel separately voiced openness that year to the prospect of opening a U.S. interests section in Iran.

The former legislator reaffirmed his opposition to U.S. sanctions in a Monday interview with the Lincoln Journal Star.

"I have not supported unilateral sanctions because when it is us alone they don't work and they just isolate the United States," he told the Nebraska newspaper. "United Nations sanctions are working. When we just decree something, that doesn't work."

Hagel would have no formal role as Defense secretary in developing or implementing punitive economic measures against Iran, but he would oversee all U.S. military deployments, including those intended to back up Obama's threats of force against the Middle Eastern state.

The former senator "carries credibility precisely because he’s not eager to make military threats," Parsi said. "But when he makes it, he’s far more likely to mean it."

Obama's choice for replacing Leon Panetta at the Pentagon suggests the president would seek to minimize aggression by a nuclear-armed Iran rather than launch a military strike “if push came to shove,” Feaver said. Still, Hagel's “impeccable credentials” in questioning calls for an attack could alternately prove useful in making a case for military force, the expert added.

The former lawmaker can be expected to pass muster during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee because he has not publicly defied the president's harder-line stances, according to the Duke University professor. Still, he would likely face an unusually significant amount opposition for a Defense secretary-designate, the expert said. Hagel's confirmation hearing had not been scheduled as of Tuesday.

Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is among several GOP senators to voice reservations over Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon.

"During these dangerous times, there is no more important Cabinet position than secretary of Defense," Graham wrote in his Twitter feed. "I fear [Hagel's] views, particularly toward Iran, send the worst possible signal at the worst time to the Iranians, our Israeli allies, and the world."

Hagel's nomination prompted an optimistic response from the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Iran's leaders “hope that practical changes would occur in the U.S. foreign policy and respect for nations’ rights would become Washington’s (new) approach,” spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on Tuesday in comments quoted by state-run Press TV.

Mousavian echoed that stance, suggesting Tehran’s assessment would ultimately “be based on actions not words.”

Obama began his first term by promising a diplomatic approach to the nuclear standoff and concluded it boasting that his adminstration had taken unprecedented action to punish the Middle Eastern state, the one-time Iranian envoy wrote in an email.

"The mismatch between words and actions have left the Iranian leadership [to] question the true intentions of Washington," said Mousavian, who is now a visiting scholar at Princeton University.

If Hagel wins confirmation, Parsi said, Iran's leaders would probably view Obama’s ability to deal with congressional demands for a harder line on Iran as more significant than the new Pentagon chief's possible impact within the administration.

“There’s a perception [in Iran] that the president has not been sufficiently strong to, for instance, put sanctions relief on the table last year due to fear of a backlash in Washington," he said.

The Obama administration has also appeared at times to clash with Israel over how to deal with Iran.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Hagel’s past statements on Iran, but said it ”looks forward to working with the next appointed secretary of Defense."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak believes U.S.-Israeli security ties are “closer than ever” under President Obama, and “we have every confidence that those relations will continue to grow,” the embassy said in an email statement.

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