President Obama with Chuck Hagel, his nominee to lead the Defense Department.… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais )
WASHINGTON -- President Obama’s nominee for secretary of Defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, will stress at his confirmation hearing Thursday that he opposes letting Iran acquire nuclear weapons and will focus on developing military options to set back Tehran’s program, according to a U.S. official familiar with his planned testimony.
It will be Hagel’s first chance to explain his views publicly since his selection last month ignited fierce opposition from several former Republican colleagues and pro-Israel groups. They contend Hagel was not tough enough on Iran during his two terms as a GOP senator from Nebraska, and warn he might not push for a U.S. attack on Iran if one is needed.
“He’s going to be very clear that he fully supports the president’s policy of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Hagel had not yet testified. “His job as secretary of Defense is to ensure that the military is prepared for any contingency, and he believes all options should be on the table, including military options.”
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Hagel’s willingness to back the use of force against Iran is likely to be the key area of questioning during what is expected to be a daylong hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee.
After a shaky start, Hagel’s nomination has picked up increasing support from Democrats, and the first Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, announced Monday that he would vote for Hagel.
White House officials say they expect more Republicans to back Hagel and predict that when the full Senate votes, he will win more than the 60 votes necessary to avoid the threat of a filibuster.
Some pro-Israel groups have greeted Hagel’s nomination with opposition or lukewarm support. Even Democrats who back Hagel are determined to press him for greater clarity on how long diplomatic pressure and sanctions on Iran should be given to work before a military strike becomes necessary.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, said “most Democrats are leaning very strongly” for Hagel, including himself. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have questions,” he added.
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Many Republicans have not forgiven Hagel for publicly criticizing the George W. Bush administration for its handling of the war in Iraq, and they are likely to be considerably harsher in tone.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, said Hagel’s nomination had “already done damage to the United States’ credibility” in dealing with Iran.
“I realize that Sen. Hagel is now repudiating many of his past actions and statements,” he added. “But we’ve seen this before.”
Like Obama, Hagel has long called for a mix of negotiations and international economic sanctions to pressure Iran, insisting that military action should be considered only as a last resort. As he has sought support for his nomination, Hagel has emphasized that unilateral U.S. sanctions and even military action could be required.
“If Iran continues to flout its international obligations, it should continue to face severe and growing consequences,” Hagel said in response to written questions from the committee. ‘‘While there is time and space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, the window is closing. Iran needs to demonstrate it is prepared to negotiate seriously.’’
Ironically, the pressure on Hagel to come out strongly for a possible military strike against Iran comes as some Israeli officials, who have long pressed the Obama administration to consider a preemptive attack, say Iran appears to have backed away, at least for now, from what the West believes is a program to develop a nuclear bomb.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the panel, said last week that he and Hagel were “too philosophically opposed on the issues" for Inhofe to support his nomination, citing Hagel’s support for defense budget cuts and for cutting nuclear stockpiles. Inhofe was one of three Republicans who voted Tuesday against confirming Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as secretary of State.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday declined to rule out the possibility that Republicans would require a 60-vote threshold for confirming Hagel.
“Sen. Hagel hasn't had his hearing yet, and I think it's too early to predict the conditions under which his nomination will be considered,” McConnell said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said he would block Hagel’s nomination from coming to a vote unless the current Pentagon chief, Leon E. Panetta, agrees to testify about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. A White House official downplayed the possibility that Hagel’s nomination could be blocked, saying negotiations were underway to let Panetta testify.