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Hagel Defends Stances on Iran, Nuke Reductions

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel arrives on Thursday for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination as Defense secretary. Republican committee members pressed Hagel on his past positions on U.S. nuclear reductions and dealing with Iran (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite). Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel arrives on Thursday for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination as Defense secretary. Republican committee members pressed Hagel on his past positions on U.S. nuclear reductions and dealing with Iran (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite).

WASHINGTON -- Former Senator Chuck Hagel, on Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearing to become the next U.S. Defense secretary, fought back on Thursday against accusations from his one-time colleagues that he supported unilaterally reducing the size and capabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Hagel also affirmed that he supports the use of sanctions as an important tool for compelling Iran into finally resolving international concerns about its nuclear program. He additionally said he backs “all options,” including the use of military force if necessary, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Hagel’s defenders on the Senate Armed Services Committee sought to position his views on U.S. nuclear weapons policy as very much in line with the mainstream of the foreign policy and defense communities and with President Obama.

Hagel, a Republican senator representing Nebraska from 1997 to 2009, stated that “no one individual vote, quote or statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record.

“My overall worldview has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together; and that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests.  I believe, and always have, that America must engage -- not retreat -- in the world.  My record is consistent on these points,” he said in his opening remarks to the committee.

A significant portion of the day’s hearing dealt with Hagel’s participation in Global Zero, a nuclear disarmament advocacy group that in May 2012 released a report that spelled out options for gradually reducing the quantity of U.S. nuclear arms and the role they play in the nation's defense policy. The organization said in the document it supports worldwide nuclear disarmament that is gradual, verifiable, negotiated, and pursued through bilateral and multilateral treaties.

Hagel formally supported the 2012 report, which advised reducing to 900 the total number of nuclear weapons held by the United States; scrapping the ICBM leg of the strategic triad; and keeping just 450 warheads on active service on heavy bombers and submarines. The document also received backing from a number of other prominent U.S. foreign policy and defense leaders, including retired Gen. James Cartwright, former head of U.S. Strategic Command and ex-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Committee member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) took issue with a number of the Global Zero recommendations, including the elimination of land-based strategic ballistic missiles and the downsizing of the SLBM fleet. “I’m more than a little troubled by the report.”

Sessions and Hagel disagreed on whether the Global Zero report’s suggestions constituted formal “proposals” or were merely “illustrative.”

“It didn’t propose or call for anything,” Hagel insisted. “It was illustrative, proposing nothing but laying out different scenarios and possibilities and schedules” for arms reductions.

The White House is understood to be reviewing an unreleased “implementation study” by the Pentagon on curtailing the size of the nation’s launch-ready nuclear arsenal, possibly down to between 1,000 and 1,100 weapons in the medium-term. Such reductions would ideally be undertaken in tandem with corresponding cuts by Russia, officials say.

The New START pact obligates both nations by 2018 to each reduce their deployed strategic nuclear assets to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems. The bilateral arms control accord does not cover tactical nuclear weapons or warheads held in reserve.

“I am committed to maintaining a modern, strong, safe, ready, and effective nuclear arsenal. … I am committed to modernizing our nuclear arsenal,” Hagel stated.

A number of conservatives have raised concerns about whether the Obama administration -- in light of the government’s enormous fiscal challenges -- intends to fulfill pledges made in 2010 to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its complex.

The former lawmaker has also taken criticism from Republicans for Senate votes against the implementation of unilateral sanctions on Iran and past statements that questioned the efficacy of such measures as well as a possible military attack on the Iranian nuclear program.

Committee member Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) pressed the Obama nominee on remarks he made in 2006 that a military strike on Iran is not a “viable, feasible or responsible option.”

Hagel responded that “My point was that this would not be a preferable option. There would be consequences to this option. Things would happen as a result of it. If we could find a better option, a better way to deal with Iran to assure they do not get nuclear weapons, then we're far better off.”

Discussing a 2002 vote against passage of domestic sanctions on Iran, Hagel said he made such judgments on a “case-by-case basis.”

“I thought there might be other ways to employ our vast ability to harness power and allies. It was never a question of did I disagree with the objective” of ensuring Iran did not acquire a nuclear-weapon capability, said the decorated Vietnam War veteran.

“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,” Hagel stated.

Hagel said as Defense secretary he would “fully support” continuing U.S. funding of such Israeli missile defense programs as Iron Dome and the Arrow interceptor. He held off, however, on promising Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)  to reprogram U.S. defense dollars toward Israeli antimissile activities as called for in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization law if Congress fails to pass a defense appropriations bill and another continuing resolution is put in place to close out the budget year that ends on Sept. 30.

Despite vocal opposition from Republicans on the committee and around the Senate, Hagel appears likely to be confirmed.

Assuming he gains all 53 Democratic votes and the two votes from Independent senators, Hagel would only need to secure five Republican nods to avoid a GOP filibuster and be confirmed.

Note to our Readers

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