That’s not speculation, either. CBS News reports this morning that the Foreign Ministry in Tehran believes that the nomination of Chuck Hagel signals “practical changes” in the US approach to Iran — and they’re probably right:
Iran’s Foreign Ministry says it is hopeful the appointment of former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon would improve relations between Tehran and the U.S.
Asked about Hagel’s nomination, ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Tuesday that Tehran was hopeful that there would be “practical changes” to U.S. foreign policy, and that nations would change their attitude towards the U.S. if it respected their rights.
Israel isn’t feeling as sunny about it, however:
Hagel’s positions on Israel’s two most pressing foreign policy issues — Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the Palestinians — appear to be at odds with the Israeli government, and critics here fear the appointment could increase pressure on the Jewish state to make unwanted concessions. The appointment could also signal further strains in what is already a cool relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to win re-election later this month.
“Because of his statements in the past, and his stance toward Israel, we are worried,” Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Israeli parliament and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, told The Associated Press. But, he added, the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Israel is strong and “one person doesn’t determine policy.”
Netanyahu’s office refused to comment on the appointment, as did officials in the Israeli foreign and defense ministries. But Rivlin’s comments reflected what has been a common sentiment among analysts and commentators here in recent days. In their evening news broadcasts, Israel’s three main TV stations on Monday all portrayed Hagel as cool toward Israel.
It’s an odd situation when a long-time antagonist and one of the worst state sponsors of terrorism feels more cheered by a Defense Department nomination than a long-time ally. In my column today for The Week, I argue that the Senate should be less concerned about Hagel’s inflammatory comments and more about his fringe approach to foreign policy — especially on Iran. In fact, the real question isn’t Hagel, but what kind of message Barack Obama is sending to Iran with his nomination:
It’s puzzling enough to see how this kind of confirmation hearing benefits Obama, with all of these questions about Hagel’s past. The better questions, though, should focus on Hagel’s future in a potential conflict, for which a secretary of defense must prepare. One of the potential conflicts on the horizon is with Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and on a somewhat less-acute plane, its support for terrorist networks such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
And Hagel’s record on Iran may be even more suspect than in any other area. He has opposed sanctions on Iran since 2001, when he opposed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (which passed 96-2), intended to prevent funding for terrorism or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Five years later, with the Iranian nuclear program exposed, Hagel gave a speech in Pakistan declaring that “a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” On at least three subsequent occasions, Hagel voted against or blocked sanctions or terror designations on Iran, all of which enjoyed wide bipartisan support.
With that in mind, what kind of signal does a Hagel nomination as the steward of American military send? Supposedly, Obama had repented of his 2008 comment that Iran was “tiny” and didn’t pose a “serious threat” to the United States. He has tried to give the impression that he learned a lesson from the weak response to the Green Revolution in 2009, and that he supported tough sanctions and a strong effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program. By naming a sanctions skeptic who also opposes the only other option to stop Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction to run the Pentagon, the future of the U.S. effort to contain Iran looks very much in doubt.
That should have supporters of Israel more worried than a remark about a “Jewish lobby” and a gay ambassador. In fact, it should have all of us worried about more than just Chuck Hagel, too, and prompt questions about Barack Obama’s intentions on Iran and security in the Middle East.
Here’s the question Hagel’s record poses for Obama after nominating this fringe voice on security: If sanctions are unacceptable and a military response is “not a viable, feasible, responsible option,” then how exactly do Obama and Hagel expect to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons?