If the Obama administration believes that ever-tougher sanctions will cause Iran to cave in at the talks, it’s likely that they are badly misreading Iranian politics.
For many observers, however, and for Iran, too, the nomination of Hagel for secretary of defense may be a sign that the White House is beginning to realize that sanctions, and threats of military action, won’t force Iran’s hand.
As has been widely reported, hawks, neoconservatives, and members of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington have slammed Hagel for his past comments and positions on Iran. In conjunction with Israel-friendly members of Congress, they’ve warned Obama to rein Hagel in so as not to send a dovish signal to Tehran. Robert Satloff, executive direction of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a pro-Israel think tank, warned bluntly that the White House should act quickly to make sure that Hagel backs away from his previous views on Iran and at least toes the administration’s tougher line. “If the White House does not take steps soon to correct that impression, the chances for a negotiated resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis will fall nearly to zero and the likelihood of Israeli military action will rise dramatically,” he wrote.
Indeed, within days of his nomination as secretary of defense, Hagel was already backing away from his earlier views, meeting with senior Pentagon officials and influential senators who’ll vote on his confirmation to clarify his views on Iran, asserting that he supports broad international sanctions against Iran and that he believes that the military option ought to be “on the table.” Several Democratic senators who met with Hagel announced with satisfaction that the former senator from Nebraska had sufficiently backtracked or “clarified” his views on Iran. Consequently, they announced that he had earned their support – and their vote.
Then, during his confirmation hearings on January 31, Hagel – under hostile questioning from several Republican senators – backed away from earlier-held positions on Iran, including the role of sanctions. And, though he previously been a sharp critic of a military attack on Iran, in his opening statement Hagel said: “I am fully committed to the President’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and—as I’ve said in the past—all options must be on the table to achieve that goal. My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment—and the President has made clear that is the policy of our government. As Secretary of Defense, I will make sure the Department is prepared for any contingency.”
Satloff’s views were echoed by another tough-talking official at WINEP, former Ambassador Dennis Ross, a pro-Israel hawk who served as Obama’s top adviser on Iran during much of the president’s first term. “I think 2013 is going to be decisive,” Ross told the Los Angeles Times, expressing concern about Hagel’s previous comments. “Time really is running out. For diplomacy to have a chance of success, the Iranians need to understand that if diplomacy fails, force is going to be the result. We still have a challenge to convince the Iranians that we’re quite serious about the use of force,” he said. “In the first term, the administration didn’t always speak with one voice on this issue. So what Hagel says can make a difference.”
Despite his poorly receieved performance at his confirmation hearings, it’s widely believed in Washington that Hagel will be confirmed as secretary of defense and that his private advice to Obama will more closely hew to his long-held beliefs about the futility of sanctions and the grave downside to a military strike. Partly for that reason, it remains very unlikely that the Obama administration will resort to force to resolve the dispute with Iran. In fact, in remarks that Iranian officials cited as promising, Vice President Joe Biden expressed the administration’s willingness to hold bilateral talks with the Iranians. In response to a question at the Munich Security Conference Biden said, “We have made it clear at the outset that…we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership” when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is serious about negotiations. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi responded favorably and said, “I am optimistic, I feel this new administration is really seeking this time to at least divert from its previous traditional approach vis-a-vis my country.”
But if Washington remains committed to ever-tougher sanctions – and without promising Iran that sanctions will be lifted as part of a deal – then negotiations are unlikely to succeed. Vali Nasr, another former Obama administration official with expertise on Iran, suggested recently that there's not much more the world can do to sanction Iran, and that such penalties could drive Tehran to take radical action. The regime of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activity "really has reached its end," Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said during the World Economic Forum in Davos. And he warned that unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough — or, alternatively, an attack on Iran — "you really are looking at a scenario where Iran is going to rush very quickly towards nuclear power, because they also think, like North Korea, that (then) you have much more leverage to get rid of these sanctions.”