Last week, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a formal vetting to be the next Secretary of Defense. As expected, the hearing was acrimonious, in large part because of Hagel's controversial views on issues such as the Iraq "surge," Israel and nuclear disarmament. Hagel's numerous stumbles on those topics, and others, were bad enough to significantly chill support for his candidacy among lawmakers. Still, unless the current controversy over the Senator's finances ends up torpedoing his bid for the office, the political math on Capitol Hill suggests that there's still a very good chance that he will end up as the next Defense Secretary.
As such, the Senator's attitudes on one issue in particular—the Islamic Republic of Iran—should be of particular interest. At his hearing, Hagel took pains to stress that he was in line with the Obama administration's thinking, supporting the idea of sanctions, backing the idea that "all options are on the table" in addressing Iran's nuclear ambitions, and even embracing the notion of "containment" of the country—until he was told that the White House in fact didn't. Yet beyond these soundbites, little is still known about what the man who might be the next Pentagon chief really thinks about one of the most pressing strategic challenges confronting the United States. Herewith, a few framing questions that should be asked now to help to illuminate Senator Hagel's thinking about Iran—and highlight how he might direct defense policy against it.
- Iranian leaders have maintained that their regime is prohibited by Islamic law from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and proscribed from doing so by a fatwa that was issued years ago by current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. However, extensive research by serious scholars has failed to unearth the text of this religious guidance. Do you believe such a fatwa was in fact issued? If so, can the Iranian regime be counted upon to abide by its parameters? If not, what does that say about Tehran's trustworthiness—and its dependability in the event a nuclear deal is concluded with the West?
- The original constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran tasked the country's clerical army, the Revolutionary Guards, with the promotion of "jihad in God's way"—a requirement which has led, over the years, to repeated Iranian efforts to export their revolution throughout the Middle East. Today, signs of this activity are visible in Iraq, where Iran has propped up a range of Shi'ite militias, and in Afghanistan, where it is collaborating with the Sunni Taliban and other irregulars in expanding the threat they pose to Coalition forces. According to U.S. military commanders, Iran's assistance has contributed directly to the deaths of American servicemen. As Secretary of Defense, how would you direct U.S. forces to respond to Iranian irregular activities in those theaters?
- Today, the Islamic Republic continues to make significant progress toward nuclear status, and do so despite mounting sanctions pressure from the West. Some have suggested that Iran remains undeterred from its current course because U.S. policy is not in synch—and because the U.S. has not demonstrated concretely that a military campaign against Iran is in fact a viable option should negotiations fail. As Secretary of Defense, you would have primary responsibility for erecting a credible coercive component to supplement the Administration's diplomatic efforts. How would you do so? What would a credible military option entail?
- The Obama administration is once again drifting toward "engagement" with Iran, as highlighted by Vice President Joe Biden's recent call for direct talks with the Islamic Republic. In the past, you have advocated in favor of some form of a "grand bargain" that would serve as a comprehensive solution to the current international impasse with Iran. What would such a deal entail, in your opinion? And what must the United States be prepared to give in order to "get to yes" with the Iranian regime?
- Finally, the past two years have seen Iran's political and operational presence in the Western Hemisphere expand significantly, culminating in the attempted assassination of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States in Washington, DC in October 2011. Pursuant to new legislation passed by Congress and recently signed into law by the President, the State Department is now crafting a strategy to counter Iranian influence and activity in Latin America. Yet the U.S. military appears to be doing the opposite, drawing down both its footprint and objectives south of the U.S. border. What, then, is the proper role for the military to play in addressing Iran's capabilities in the Americas?