U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has vowed to Congress that he’ll “focus intently on countering Iran’s malign influence.”
“Serious contingency planning” by the Pentagon will complement the Obama administration’s strategy of using economic sanctions “with the objective of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Hagel said in previously unreleased written answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee after his January confirmation hearing.
Hagel replied in writing to questions from the lawmakers as part of an effort that eventually led to his Senate confirmation in the face of substantial Republican opposition. Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska, was confirmed on a 58-41 vote last month after a bruising fight over his past positions, from criticizing the influence of what he once called the “Jewish lobby” to opposing unilateral sanctions against Iran.
The answers to the Armed Services Committee’s chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, and its top Republican, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, contain stronger language about Iran and the need to counter its activity than Hagel used in his testimony.
“Iran’s activities are malevolent and intended to be destabilizing,” Hagel wrote.
The Pentagon has a role in supporting diplomatic and intelligence efforts to “inhibit” Iranian proxies and terrorist groups and to “leverage its presence in the region to deter and, when directed by the president, disrupt malign activities,” Hagel wrote.
U.S. actions against Iran could include offensive cyber operations “if directed by the president,” Hagel wrote.
Iran has blamed the U.S. and Israel for the Stuxnet computer virus that hit in 2010 and damaged centrifuges at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant. Lawmakers have criticized the Obama administration for leaking a report to the New York Times that the president ordered the cyber attack.
On the broader prospect of engaging in offensive cyber operations, Hagel said “I will ensure that” the Pentagon provides the White House “with a broad range of military options.”
During his nomination hearing, Hagel was questioned about past votes and statements concerning Iran, such as voting against a measure designating its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
Hagel also was faulted by several Republicans for refusing to sign a congressional letter to the European Union urging it to designate the militant Islamist group Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said in January that his country hoped Hagel’s nomination by President Barack Obama indicated U.S. officials favored peace. The comment prompted Inhofe to ask Hagel during the confirmation hearing, “Why do you think that the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?”
“I have a difficult enough time with American politics,” Hagel said. “Senator, I have no idea.”
Hagel said in the written answers that he’d “make it a priority to assess the adequacy of our missile defense posture” in the Middle East and “encourage our allies to continue to make investments” in defensive systems to counter Iran.
The Pentagon said in a June report that Iran’s military continues to improve the accuracy and killing power of its long-and short-range ballistic missile force, including designing a maneuverable weapon to target vessels.
Hagel also said he supported deployment to Israel of a Raytheon Co. TPY-2 ground-based air defense radar as well as cooperation on ship-based missile defenses.
Hagel is scheduled to meet tomorrow with Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, his first foreign visitor since succeeding Leon Panetta as Pentagon chief.