The Cable

Why Is the Pentagon M.I.A. From the Iran Nuke Talks?

With American and Iranian negotiators streaming into Geneva for the next round of nuclear talks, there’s been no shortage of official rhetoric coming from Washington. The Obama administration argues that the deal wrests real concessions from the Iranians in exchange for only modest sanctions relief. The State Department says an agreement would freeze Iran’s nuclear ...

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

With American and Iranian negotiators streaming into Geneva for the next round of nuclear talks, there’s been no shortage of official rhetoric coming from Washington. The Obama administration argues that the deal wrests real concessions from the Iranians in exchange for only modest sanctions relief. The State Department says an agreement would freeze Iran’s nuclear program while buying time to hash out a permanent deal. And the Pentagon — well, the Pentagon has stayed relatively silent. Which is kind of odd, since the man in charge of the Defense Department is one of Washington’s better-known advocates for talks with Tehran.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been the administration’s point person on Iran, as he was during September’s Syria crisis. He dominated recent joint appearances on Capitol Hill with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, answering questions more forcefully, and with more specificity, than his colleague. Hagel, like his predecessors, has said that all options are on the table when it comes to Iran. But during a recent round of public appearances, Hagel has largely deferred to Kerry when the subject of Iran has come up. "The president has said, Secretary Kerry has said, a bad deal is worse than no deal," Hagel told the Reagan Defense Forum over the weekend. "As we all know, this is Secretary Kerry’s area of responsibility," he said during an October joint appearance with the Secretary of State in Tokyo.

More concretely, the Pentagon won’t be sending any representatives to this week’s talks. The Navy has also begun to quietly redeploy some of the ships it had kept in the Mediterranean Sea during the Syria crisis to other parts of the world.

The Pentagon’s reduced public role reflects a pair of factors. First, the administration has worked hard to reduce tensions with Iran and find a way of slowing, and then ending, Iran’s push for a nuclear bomb through diplomacy rather than through the use of force. Having Hagel or other Pentagon officials speak publicly about potential military strikes could gum up the fragile talks by making Iranian officials feel like they’re being bullied and can’t trust that the administration is negotiating in good faith.

The Defense Department’s relative silence on Iran also highlights Hagel’s long record as a staunch advocate of greater diplomatic outreach towards Tehran. During his time in the Senate, Hagel twice declined to back moves to impose unilateral economic sanctions on Iran. In a 2007 speech, moreover, Hagel said that it was a "false choice" to believe that the only options facing American policymakers were an "Iran with nuclear weapons or war with Iran." Instead, he argued that the U.S. should try to use a mix of diplomacy and multilateral sanctions to persuade Tehran to change its behavior.

"Perhaps no prominent elected official in the U.S. has been a more outspoken supporter of engagement with Iran over the last decade than Chuck Hagel," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "At a time when the Obama administration is desperately trying to reach a diplomatic deal it doesn’t make much sense for the Pentagon to rattle sabers."   

Still, the Pentagon’s quiet role marks a shift from past years, when the nation’s top military and civilian leaders were quick to talk tough about Iran and stress that the U.S. had the military capability to deal a serious blow to Iran’s nuclear facilities and forcibly reopen the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil route, if Tehran tried to close it.

Speaking on CBS’ "Face the Nation" in January 2012, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would use force if Iran began developing a nuclear weapon.

"I think they need to know that – that if they take that step – that they’re going to get stopped," he said at the time.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CBS at the time that Iran would likely be able to close the Strait of Hormuz temporarily, but that the U.S. "can defeat that."

Israel has been far more vocal about its willingness to use force against Iran. Yaakov Amidror, a Netanyahu confidante who stepped down as his country’s national security advisor last month, told the Financial Times that Israel was prepared to carry out a unilateral strike on Iran, regardless of the outcome of the current talks. The Israeli air force, he said, has been doing "very long range flights…all around the world" to hone its ability to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if Netanyahu gave the order.

"We don’t need permission from anyone — we are an independent state," he told the newspaper.

"We have our own sovereignty. If Israel is in a position in which Israel must defend itself, Israel will do it."

If the current talks fail, we’re likely to hear Hagel, Dempsey, and other senior military officials start talking more about the prospect of using military force against Iran. In the meantime, Hagel is doing his best to defend Kerry, his longtime colleague in the Senate and now in the administration, from critics of the negotiations.

"I felt sorry for Secretary Kerry, because people jumped into this, saying ‘Well, he didn’t get anything; he didn’t get a deal,’" Hagel told a recent security conference. "Wait a minute. We’ve been at some kind of unofficial war with Iran since 1979. Does anybody really think we’re all going to get together in some kind of [diplomatic talks] for a week and come out of that with some tiny little agreement?"

The current negotiations, Hagel added, "are going to take time."

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