Were Chuck Hagel to be nominated as secretary of defense, the Iranian mullahs would interpret President Obama’s decision as a signal that the military option was now, effectively, off the table. It would encourage them to proceed with their development of nuclear weapons without fear of an attack from the United States. It would tell them that if they can endure the pain of sanctions and continue the charade of negotiations, they will ultimately be allowed to win the prize of a deliverable nuclear bomb.
Hagel’s nomination would also validate the fears of Israeli leaders who have never really believed that the United States would attack Iran’s nuclear program even if that were the only way to stop it. It would make an Israeli military attack more likely.
President Obama himself has been clear that the policy of his administration is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons rather than to “contain” a nuclear-armed Iran through deterrence. He has made it clear that he would authorize the use of force if that were the only way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. But Hagel’s position has been the exact opposite. He was the softest senator with regard to the threat posed by Iran and its surrogates, and he would be seen as the softest secretary of defense. A lead editorial in the Washington Post aptly summarized Hagel’s views:
Mr. Hagel . . . repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior. . . . Mr. Obama has said that his policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that containment is not an option. Mr. Hagel has taken a different view, writing in a 2008 book that “the genie of nuclear weapons is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does.”
It is true that Hagel has also talked about keeping all options on the table, but the thrust of his position, as it will surely be understood by the Iranians, suggests that if he were to become secretary of defense, he would strongly oppose the use of force against Iran’s nuclear program, even as a last resort.
Hagel’s appointment would send another disturbing message to the bigots of Tehran, who believe that the only people calling for military action against Iran are “the Jews.” Hagel speaks their language. He is the only mainstream American politician to talk openly about how “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people.” Others refer to the “Israel lobby,” which includes Jews, Christians, and others. They understand that not all supporters of Israel are Jewish, and that not all Jews are part of the Israel lobby. But Hagel apparently sees things in terms of Jewish interests versus American interests.
This is a delicate time for American policy with regard to Iran in particular and the Middle East in general. Syria, an ally of Iran, is on the verge of collapse. Egypt is in turmoil. Jordan is having difficulties. The Israel–Palestine peace process seems to be at a standstill. This is not the time to be sending the wrong message, or even a confusing message, to Iran and its surrogates by nominating a man who is widely seen as out of the American mainstream when it comes to support for Israel’s security.
Even if Hagel were to be nominated and then not confirmed by the Senate, the Iranians would get the wrong message. They would see the nomination as representing President Obama’s real views on the possible use of force against the Iranian nuclear program, and they would see the Senate’s negative vote as a reflection of the power of the “Jewish lobby” over the legislature. Since it is the president and not the legislature that will decide whether to deploy the military option against Iran, the mullahs will be confirmed in their belief that they are free to continue to develop nuclear weapons.
In the end, the nomination of Hagel would make military action by the United States or Israel more rather than less likely, because it would embolden the mullahs toward defying any threat of the military option.
Senator Hagel is the wrong man, being considered for the wrong job, at the wrong time. There are other candidates whose nomination would send the right message: namely, that the United States will try sanctions and negotiations first, and will use force only as a last resort, but that under no circumstances will the Obama administration allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. That’s President Obama’s message. That’s not Senator Hagel’s message. Mixed messages are ineffective and in this case would be quite dangerous.
— Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.