Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry, the Obama administration’s most fervent supporter of nuclear negotiations with Iran, said in a speech that the U.S. would “not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest” it is wrong to even test Iran’s willingness to make nuclear concessions.
This statement, made at an event sponsored by the Ploughshares Fund, a group that opposes nuclear proliferation but which sometimes seems overly relaxed about the danger of a nuclear Iran, was generally understood to have been a brushback pitch thrown at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been arguing that the American administration, and its European allies, are walking into a trap of Iran’s devising.
In this latest phase of the Iran drama, the differences between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama (which I wrote about here) are mainly concealed from view, but we’re now seeing some small fissures. I’ve been curious to know what others in the Obama administration think about Netanyahu’s current stance (a stance he shares with many in the U.S. Senate, by the way), so on a visit to the Pentagon late last week, one of the first questions I put to the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, was this: Is Netanyahu, in fact, using scare tactics in order to torpedo Iran negotiations?
“I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is legitimately concerned, as any prime minister of Israel has been, about the future security needs of their country,” Hagel said. Netanyahu, he continued, “has got a history of being very clear on where he is on this.”
Hagel, now in his ninth month leading the Pentagon, argued that Netanyahu’s threats of military action against Iranian nuclear sites, combined with the pressure of sanctions, may have actually encouraged Iran to take negotiations seriously.
“It’s true that sanctions -- not just U.S. sanctions but UN sanctions, multilateral sanctions -- have done tremendous economic damage,” Hagel said. “Even many of Iran’s leaders have acknowledged that. And I think that Iran is responding to the constant pressure from Israel, knowing that Israel believes them to be an existential threat. I think all of this, combined, probably brought the Iranians to where we are today. Whether the Iranians will carry forth on that, we’ll see.”
Hagel made sure to absolve Netanyahu of the charge that he’s intent on subverting the nuclear talks. “I don’t think he’s intentionally trying to derail negotiations,” he said.
We were talking at a small table in Hagel’s E-Ring office. A portrait of Winston Churchill, who coincidentally is Netanyahu’s hero (but not Obama’s), hangs on the wall. To those who haven’t paid much attention to Hagel since his confirmation hearings, his sympathetic reading of Netanyahu’s position might come as a surprise. After all, Hagel had come under sustained attack by the conservative wing of the pro-Israel camp as a danger to the Jewish state, portrayed as someone who is soft on Iran and naïve about the Palestinians and their intentions.
These accusations are now mainly forgotten. Hagel has worked assiduously to ensure that Israel maintains its so-called qualitative military edge over its foes; he has developed close working ties with Israel’s defense minister and its top generals; and Jewish groups, once wary, have embraced him. Last week, he spoke to a national meeting of the Anti-Defamation League, and publicly confirmed that the Pentagon has fast-tracked the delivery of six V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor airplanes to Israel. “They’re going to the head of the line,” he said. These are aircraft that could be used to stealthily insert commandos into such hostile and distant locales as … Iran. Still, Israel isn’t getting all it wants from the U.S. -- specifically, the sort of munitions that could blast through the reinforced roofs of Iranian nuclear facilities.
“I suspect the Israelis would like an inventory of everything, but certain things we do keep as proprietary, and they know that,” Hagel said. “On the standoff weapons piece, that’s right on track -- the Israelis are signed off on that,” he said, referring to weapons that can be fired at targets from far distances.
In a 75-minute conversation, Hagel gave me his version of the Middle East crisis tour. Talking with him, I found, was not like talking to Donald Rumsfeld. Interviewing Rumsfeld at this table was like interviewing a razor blade; one wrong move and you’d get cut. Hagel, on the other hand, is tranquil, conversational, and very, very discursive. I found it difficult, at certain moments in the conversation, to make out any obvious themes in the Obama administration’s approach to the region. This might not be Hagel’s fault, of course. The administration’s current approach is, to borrow from Churchill, a kind of themeless pudding.
Circumstances have conspired to curse Hagel with a challenging diplomatic portfolio, even as he is forced to spend much of his time wrestling the Pentagon budget to the ground. It is well known that he is the main point of American contact for General Abdelfatah al-Seesi, the leader of the Egyptian military junta; the two men have spoken more than 25 times since the July couplike event that deposed the elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi. But Hagel has also been holding the hands of other Arab leaders of the (relatively speaking) moderate camp, who are uniformly worried that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Middle East. These figures include Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and the most important defense figure in the United Arab Emirates. MBZ, as he is known, is one of the many Arab leaders who fear (as Israel’s leaders do) that any vacuum created by the departure of the U.S. from the Middle East will be filled by Iran.
In my next post, I’ll discuss Hagel’s argument that, despite the creation of a “new world order” in which power is rapidly diffusing, there is no plausible substitute for the U.S., and also why, despite his obvious pro-Israel record as defense secretary, he is still married to a set of ideas about Middle East peace that may no longer be operative.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)