Chuck Hagel Moves Toward Mainstream on Iran

Once Contrarian, Pentagon Pick Shifts to Establishment Stance

Falling in Line: Chuck Hagel used to be known as a lawmaker who marched to his own beat, especially on the Middle East and Iran. Now that he’s aiming to be President Obama’s Pentagon chief, he’s hewing closer to the mainstream.
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Falling in Line: Chuck Hagel used to be known as a lawmaker who marched to his own beat, especially on the Middle East and Iran. Now that he’s aiming to be President Obama’s Pentagon chief, he’s hewing closer to the mainstream.

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 16, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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In effect, Hagel’s acceptance of the “all options on the table” approach and the Washington establishment’s evolution toward seeing military intervention in Iran as unwelcome except as an absolute last resort enable both sides to move toward each other. The dual movements make Hagel’s transition into the role of Obama’s right hand on military issues much easier.

Close observers insist that this shift in Hagel’s thinking is not just a matter of political convenience spurred by his nomination. Hagel’s evolution, said Colin Kahl, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, “tracks very closely the changes on the ground.” There is a traceable arc, he said, in Hagel’s positioning.

Doubts regarding Hagel’s willingness to lead the Pentagon into a military campaign in Iran stem to a great extent from an April 2006 interview he gave to a reporter from Pakistan Press International. In it, he was quoted as saying that a military option against Iran “is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”

Hagel also voted against several pieces of legislation extending sanctions by the United States against Iran, and opposed a resolution calling for the inclusion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps on America’s list of terror organizations.

But Hagel’s stands then were influenced by his strong opposition to America’s war in Iraq and by his reservations about the way the Bush administration had conducted the American war in Afghanistan. In an interview with CNN earlier in 2006, Hagel explained: “I think, before we charge off in going off to another war — we’re in two of them now, in Afghanistan and Iraq — we’d better think through this one carefully and clearly. I think it’s going to require an engagement directly with the Iranians.”

Hagel has since explained that his Senate votes reflected only his opposition then to unilateral American sanctions against Iran, which he viewed as ineffective; they did not reflect the current regime of internationally supported sanctions. His reluctance to support some congressional moves, including the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terror group, Hagel said, stemmed from his concern that the Bush administration would use such legislation to justify taking military action precipitously, as Hagel viewed Bush’s action in Iraq.


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