Bloomberg is reporting that Chuck Hagel will "likely to be nominated as Secretary of Defense" having passed through the White House vetting process. The former senator from Nebraska will likely be touted as a bipartisan choice, though Hagel is hardly beloved by the GOP establishment these days and leading Republicans will likely be skeptical of many of his foreign-policy views, particularly on Iran. The National Review quotes a senior congressional aide:
“This is someone who will be extremely skeptical of the idea that, if push comes to shove, we should use military force against Iran... Fairly or not, if Senator Hagel is nominated by the president to be secretary of defense, it will be broadly viewed as a signal that the United States is not going to use military force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
Is that a fair description? Hagel did say during a 2006 visit to Pakistan that "a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” He has also advocated direct talks with Tehran. Here's are some remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2005:
The fact that our two governments cannot-or will not-sit down to exchange views must end. Iran is a regional power; it has major influence in Iraq and throughout the Gulf region. Its support of terrorist organizations and the threat it poses to Israel is all the more reason that the U.S. must engage Iran. Any lasting solution to Iran's nuclear weapons program will also require the United States' direct discussions with Iran. The United States is capable of engaging Iran in direct dialogue without sacrificing any of its interests or objectives. As a start, we should have direct discussions with Iran on the margins of any regional security conference on Iraq, as we did with Iran in the case of Afghanistan.
Of course, that was quite a few years ago. More recently, Hagel co-authored a Washington Post op-ed with William Fallon, Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering, and Anthony Zinni, making the case that while Iranian nuclear weapons pose a threat, Washington needs a more honest debate about the consequences of war:
Iran is likely to retaliate directly but also to pursue an asymmetrical response, including heightened terrorist activity and covert operations as well as using surrogates such as Hezbollah. An increase in the price of oil could keep the market unstable for weeks or months and disrupt the global economy.
The conflict could also escalate into a regional war involving Syria, Hezbollah, the Palestinians and other Arab states and terrorist groups. While a U.S.-led attack on Iran might be quietly welcomed by the leaders of many Arab states, and certainly by Israel, it would most likely be greeted with hostility from wide swaths of the region’s Muslims.
Other consequences might include the increased likelihood of a decision by Iran to build a nuclear weapon; more instability in a region still seeking its footing; and the opportunity for extremist groups such as al-Qaeda to attract recruits.
When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama wisely described the dilemma that the United States faces as a great nation: “part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.” The United States needs to have a nonpartisan, reasoned discussion about the choice between necessity and human folly.
I'm not sure if a Hagel appointment would actually constitute a "shift" in Iran stance. Current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has also warned of the potential "unintended consequences" of a strike on Iran, saying it "could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on US forces in the region." Obama himself has said that "additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us. It could have a big effect on oil prices. We've still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran. And so our preferred solution here is diplomatic."
Hagel called for direct talks with Iran during the closing years of the Bush administration -- as did Obama. He now says Iran's nukes pose a serious threat but that the GOP isn't fully considering the consequences of military action -- as do Obama and Panetta. If there's a "signal" being sent, it's that the administration is sticking with the plan on Iran.