Why Iran supports Hagel

David Meyers Former White House Staffer
Font Size:

President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel was meant to send a message, and it has: That President Obama is not serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and that Tehran has an anti-Israel ally in the president’s war cabinet.

Chuck Hagel’s misguided policies on Iran and the Middle East have already received considerable coverage. Chief among them is his opposition to sanctions on Iran. Both in 2001 and 2008 (at which point the United Nations had already sanctioned Iran) Hagel steadfastly opposed sanctions against Tehran.

Hagel has tried to explain away those votes, but he has also opposed sanctions against countries such as North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Cuba. This aversion to sanctions is incompatible with Obama’s strategy on Iran, and it’s also flat-out wrong (the progress we’ve seen in Burma is a direct result of sanctions).

Hagel supporters say that the “Jewish lobby” is using paranoia and scare tactics to overhype the threat of a nuclear Iran. But President Obama himself said that “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained” and promised to “do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

If President Obama wants to change course and claim we can tolerate a nuclear Iran, he should do so explicitly. Instead, by nominating Hagel, he has done so implicitly, and has signaled that he won’t do whatever it takes to prevent a nuclear Iran.

Obama’s goal has been to force Tehran to capitulate to sanctions by threatening to use force if sanctions fail. Iran probably never believed this to begin with. But by nominating Hagel, Obama has likely confirmed Tehran’s suspicions.

Without the threat of force, sanctions are unlikely to work. The mullahs believe that a nuclear weapon is the only way to preserve their regime (an argument which has credence if you examine what’s happened in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea).

The mullahs have also shown a willingness to kill and torture their own people to preserve power (both during the Green Revolution and in the years since).

So it’s hard to imagine that economic sanctions alone will convince Tehran to give up its nuclear weapons program. Further, sanctions have been undermined by China’s and India’s decisions to continue buying Iranian oil.

And any hope that sanctions will convince the Iranian people to overthrow the regime is similarly misplaced. The Iranian people tried this in 2009, and were snuffed out by the mullahs and Revolutionary Guard with absolutely no moral or other support from the United States.

Hagel’s nomination will be seen by Tehran as confirmation that Obama will not use force. Whether this is true or not, it is the signal that Obama has sent. And it may doom our chances of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Chuck Hagel has also been appallingly weak on standing up to terrorists and extremists in the Middle East. He has refused calls to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization. In 2007, the same year he opposed the surge in Iraq, he voted against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization — despite evidence it was responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Hagel repeatedly supported and misjudged the Assad regime in Syria; in 2008, he co-authored an op-ed with John Kerry entitled “It’s time to talk to Syria.” Hagel also urged President Obama to negotiate directly with Hamas, a terrorist organization that has vowed to destroy Israel and has purposefully killed innocent women and children.

In fact, when it comes to Israel, Hagel shares disturbing characteristics with the Iranian regime. Iranian state TV has labeled Hagel as “anti-Israel,” and it has good reason for doing so.

Hagel has, at numerous times, refused to sign symbolic letters of support for Israel (in October 2000, he was one of only four senators who refused to do so). He refused to call on President Bush to boycott Yasser Arafat until Arafat’s forces stopped committing acts of terror against Israel. Hagel also refused a call to ban terrorist groups from participating in Palestinian elections. The list goes on and on.

Hagel is perhaps most famous for claiming that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates people on Capitol Hill, and declaring: “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is … the United States.”

Hagel’s supporters, including Thomas Friedman, have defended Hagel’s comment on the “Jewish lobby,” claiming most senators feel the same way. Nonsense. Yes, supporters of Israel have a strong voice on Capitol Hill. But it’s not just because of the “Jewish lobby.” It’s because they support common-sense positions, including: Israel has a right to exist and fight terror; it’s wise to sanction and isolate terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah; and there’s no moral equivalency between terrorist acts designed to kill women and children and legitimate acts of self-defense.

It’s not the “Israel lobby” that convinces senators to vote a certain way; it’s their sense of right and wrong. Given that Hagel has a different view on many of these issues, it’s easy to see why he might feel pressured by the “Israel lobby.” Further, many steadfast supporters of Israel, Republican and Democrat, have differed on policy with groups like AIPAC. But those politicians held their ground, and did what they thought was right. Why, then, is Hagel so concerned about the “Israel lobby”?

By referring to the strength of the “Israel lobby,” Hagel is playing into the anti-Semitic stereotype that the Jews have too much power and their level of influence greatly outstrips their numbers. This is the exact same mentality that has been behind every major anti-Semitic movement, including Nazism.

Further, by stating that he’s a “United States senator” and not an “Israeli senator,” Hagel is accusing members of Congress and American Jews of putting Israel before their own country. This is simply disgusting, and another characteristic of the anti-Semitism that culminated in the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Finally, for those who believe that Hagel is simply anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic, here’s a closing anecdote. In 1989, Hagel tried to shut down a USO site in Israel, despite objections from Congress and the Navy. “Let the Jews pay for it,” he told Marsha Halteman at the time. Yes, it seems that Tehran has found a fellow traveler in Washington.

David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.