The Cable

Menendez and Hagel on opposite sides of Iran issue

If Chuck Hagel is selected as President Obama's next defense secretary, the former Nebraska senator could find himself battling the new head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on the fraught issue of how to deal with Iran -- that is if Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) leaves that committee to become secretary of state.

The White House is expected to announce its new national security nominations as early as this Friday, Dec. 21, depending on how the president's "fiscal cliff" negotiations are proceeding with House Speaker John Boehner.

Why not earlier? Kerry is slated to chair the Dec. 20 SFRC hearing on Benghazi featuring testimony by top State Department officials, which would be politically awkward if he were named as their future boss before the hearing. If Kerry is nominated to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Menendez is the likely choice to replace him at the helm of the SFRC.

Menendez has opposed the Obama administration on some key foreign-policy issues over the last two years, none more openly than the issue of how to deal with Iran's ongoing progress towards a nuclear weapon.

This week, for example, Menendez is leading the effort, along with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to collect Senate signatures for a letter to Obama, obtained by The Cable, that urges the president to use his second term to pursue a more aggressive policy toward Iran. 

The letter asks that Obama not pursue limited confidence-building measures in any future negotiations with Tehran, that Iran not be allowed to retain any enrichment capabilities at all, and that there be no diminution of pressure on the Iranian regime until it addresses all concerns over its nuclear program, closes the Fordow enrichment facility, and allows full inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the letter had 57 signatures.

Also Tuesday, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees unveiled a conference report on the fiscal 2013 national defense authorization bill that includes new sanctions on Iran, written by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) -- measures that the White House opposed.

"The window is closing. The time for the waiting game is over," Menendez said on the Senate floor when unveiling the new sanctions last month

At the time, the National Security Council's legislative affairs office said the new sanctions were duplicative and confusing and told lawmakers that the White House opposed the Menendez-Kirk legislation.

"We do not believe additional authority to apply more sanctions on Iran is necessary at this time," the NSC told senators.

In previous such battles with the White House, Menendez's view has won the day, and new and increasingly harsh sanctions have passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.

That may set up the New Jersey lawmaker for a clash with Hagel, who as a senator was a rare GOP voice arguing against increased sanctions on Iran. In 2008, Hagel was blamed for blocking an Iran sanctions bill that Senate Democrats supported. As early as 2001, Hagel said that sanctions on Iran and Libya were ineffective. He was one of only two senators that year to vote against renewal of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, along with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN).

As recently as May, Hagel told The Cable that he believed there was still time to pursue diplomacy with Iran.

"The two options -- attack Iran or live with a nuclear-armed Iran -- may be eventually where we are. But I believe most people in both Israel and the United States think there's a ways to go before we get to those," Hagel said. "I think Obama is handling this exactly the right way."

Hagel may benefit from his ties to many of his former colleagues. But several Senate offices are gearing up to mount a campaign against Hagel, should he be nominated.

"There are a lot of senators, Democrats and Republicans, who are very outspoken on the need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability through the imposition of sanctions and demonstration of a credible military threat," one senior Senate aide said. "Chuck Hagel is the antithesis of everything those members believe in."

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The Cable

Chuck Hagel does not like sanctions

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, rumored to be in contention for the job of defense secretary, has a long record of opposing sanctions on countries including Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Cuba.

Hagel, who serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama's intelligence advisory board, throughout his career has publicly supported the idea of engaging with rogue regimes and focusing on diplomacy before punitive measures. While in Congress, he voted against several sanctions measures and argued vociferously against their effectiveness.

"Engagement is not appeasement. Diplomacy is not appeasement. Great nations engage. Powerful nations must be the adults in world affairs. Anything less will result in disastrous, useless, preventable global conflict," Hagel said in a Brookings Institution speech in 2008.

In 2008, Hagel was blamed for blocking an Iran sanctions bill that Senate Democrats supported. That same year, he gave a speech calling for the opening of a U.S. diplomatic post in Tehran. As early as 2001, Hagel said that sanctions on Iran and Libya were ineffective. He was one of only two senators that year to vote against renewal of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, along with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN).

In his 2008 book, America: Our Next Chapter, Hagel wrote, "America's refusal to recognize Iran's status as a legitimate power does not decrease Iran's influence, but rather increases it."

That same year, Hagel praised the George W. Bush administration's deal with North Korea, which included lifting some sanctions on Pyongyang and removing North Korea from the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism in exchange for greater transparency into North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea later reneged on its side of that bargain.

"The last thing we want to do or should do in my opinion is try to isolate North Korea," Hagel said in 2003. "They are very dangerous, they're unpredictable, and they have a past behavior pattern that's a bit erratic. That is not good news for any of us. So I think we keep the emotions down and keep working the channels."

On Syria, Hagel was a longtime supporter of engagement with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, Hafez al-Assad. After meeting with Assad the elder in 1998, Hagel said, "Peace comes through dealing with people. Peace doesn't come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun."

In 2008, Hagel co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with prospective secretary of state nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), entitled, "It's time to talk to Syria."

"Syria's leaders have always made cold calculations in the name of self-preservation, and history shows that intensive diplomacy can pay off," Hagel and Kerry wrote.

Hagel has long been a critic of the multi-decade U.S. embargo on Cuba. He has said the trade embargo on Cuba "isolates us, not Cuba," and voted several times to ease parts of it.

"On Cuba, I've said that we have an outdated, unrealistic, irrelevant policy," he said in 2008. "It's always been nonsensical to me about this argument, 'Well, it's a communist country, it's a communist regime.' What do people think Vietnam is? Or the People's Republic of China? Both those countries are WTO members. We trade with them. We have relations. Great powers engage...  Great powers are not afraid. Great powers trade."

That same year, Hagel signed onto a letter to Secretary State Condoleezza Rice urging her to alter U.S.-Cuba policy. In 2002, Hagel called then leader Fidel Castro a "toothless old dinosaur" and said he agreed with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter on Cuba.

"What Jimmy Carter's saying ... is exactly right: Our 40-year policy toward Cuba is senseless," Hagel said.

In 2000, Hagel fought against legislation that would have granted citizenship to Cuban refugee Elian Gonzales.

"Chuck Hagel, like many other great national security strategists including Bob Gates and Brent Scowcroft, thinks that unilateral sanctions fashioned by emotion rather than strategic interests make no sense," said Steve Clemons, editor at large for the Atlantic and a longtime Hagel supporter.

"In many of the cases that sanctions resolutions appeared in the Senate," Clemons said, "sanctions by the U.S., unaccompanied by global support, actually reduce America's leverage in seducing or compelling a problematic nation from taking a different course."

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