Think Hagel represents meaningful change for US foreign policy? Think again.

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The nomination of Chuck Hagel is being celebrated in some circles (including here on this site) as a strike against war with Iran and a colossal failure for the Israel lobby. But even assuming he’s confirmed, there is very little evidence that Hagel will do much to shift an administration that has continued to press AIPAC-inspired pressure on Iran and maintains a foreign policy slanted heavily in favor of Israel and its interests.

On Wednesday Phil Weiss began a post celebrating the Hagel annoncement saying, “When Obama nominated Chuck Hagel Monday, I was jubilant for one reason: The military option is off the table, we will not attack Iran.” That same day the Associated Press ran a story saying that Hagel was working to reassure Pentagon officials that in fact the opposite was true:

President Barack Obama’s pick for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, is meeting with senior Pentagon staff to try to set the record straight about his stand on Iran, saying he backs strong international sanctions against Tehran and believes all options, including military action, should be on the table, defense officials said Wednesday.

Of course, this may just be politicking. While it is conjecture at this point to know whether Hagel would support an attack or not, his line parrots that of the administration which continues to insist the military option is on the table. There is some daylight when it comes to sanctions, and to his credit Hagel does not support the draconian sanctions regime being supported and strengthened by the Obama administration. Although sanctions are commonly thought of as an alternative to war, here is what Obama administration policy means on the ground.

Associated Press:

For the first time in more than a decade, the black market pharmaceutical peddlers are back on Nasser Khosrow Street near Tehran’s main bazaar.

“Medicine, medicine,” the street dealers shout. “Any kind you want.”

Business is brisk. For many Iranians, such underground channels are now the only way to get needed — or even life-saving — drugs as Western sanctions over the country’s nuclear program have indirectly limited normal supplies to hospitals and pharmacies. . .

Scenes of overcrowded state hospitals are now common across Iran after fees for private health care have nearly doubled in recent months. The costs in state-run facilities are far cheaper, but that also comes with shortages and long waits.

“Sometimes we don’t even have serum for dehydrated patients, said a young doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was worried that comments to the media could jeopardize his job at a state-run hospital.

The prices for other items have soared in recent months: radiology film up 240 percent; helium gas for MRIs up 667 percent; filters for kidney dialysis up 325 percent. The cost of one round of chemotherapy for cancer has reached 200 million rials, or $65,000, from 800 million rials, or $25,000, last year.

The independent Hamshari daily quoted a father — who was not named in the article — as saying his child died because he couldn’t afford the higher price of an artificial heart valve.

At a major pharmacy in Tehran, a 53-year-old father slumped over — his head in his hands — as he looked at the prices for medicine for his teenage daughter, who is suffering from stomach cancer.

How can I afford buying medicine as prices have doubled over a week?” said Hooshang, who gave only his first name.


The board of directors of the Iranian Hemophilia Society recently informed the World Federation of Hemophilia that the lives of tens of thousands of children are being endangered by the lack of proper drugs caused by international economic sanctions. According to the Society, while the export of drugs to Iran has not been banned, the sanctions imposed on the Central Bank of Iran and the country’s other financial institutions have severely disrupted the purchase and transfer of medical goods. Describing itself as a nonpolitical organization that has been active for 45 years, the Society condemned the “inhumane and immoral” U.S. and EU sanctions and appealed to international organizations for help.

Tens of thousands of Iranian boys and men have hemophilia and need certain drugs that must be imported. Many of them need surgery for a variety of reasons, but in the absence of proper drugs for their hemophilia, the surgeries cannot be performed. In fact, several reports from Iran indicate that all surgeries for all hemophiliac patients have been canceled.

But the problem is not restricted to hemophiliacs. Reports indicate that advanced drugs for a variety of cancers (particularly leukemia), heart diseases, lung problems, multiple sclerosis, and thalassemia cannot be imported, endangering the lives of tens of thousands of people. There are about 37,000 Iranians with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that can be controlled only with advanced medications; without them, the patients will die. And given that, even under the best medical conditions,40,000 Iranians lose their lives to cancer every year, and that it has been predicted by many experts that Iran will have a “cancer tsunami” by 2015, because every year 70,000–80,000 new cases of cancer are identified in Iran, the gravity of the situation becomes even more glaring.

While a military attack may be on the back burner for now, it seems the pain is already being felt in Iran. While some view Hagel’s nomination as a sign AIPAC’s power has been diminished, it should be remembered that Obama’s sanctions are the current centerpiece of the organization’s lobbying efforts. Hagel may not have been the lobby’s choice for Secretary of Defense, but its agenda moves forward regardless.

Similarly, Hagel has been busy making his position on Israel clear — and it’s nothing to be excited about. Hagel gave an interview with his hometown newspaper in which he said that his record demonstrates “unequivocal, total support for Israel.” He also added that there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel.”

Hagel is speaking the truth, perhaps to the chagrin of those hoping against hope that his appointment would demonstrate a real break from the Obama administration’s deference to Israel. At every chance he had, Hagel voted in favor of providing billions of dollars in military aid to Israel. The neoconservative attacks against Hagel have been prompted by views of his that have at times struck out from the mainstream consensus on Israel in Washington, but the overall thrust of Hagel’s voting record makes clear he is a strong supporter of Israel.

Hagel’s protestations that he is indeed pro-Israel dovetails with what administration officials told BuzzFeed earlier this week. The publication reported that, as part of the “selling” of Hagel, they circulated “talking points prepared by Hagel staffers pushing back on attacks that he isn’t committed to Israel.”

One of the talking points was that Hagel “has said that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state must be protected as a part of any peace deal.” That talking point, BuzzFeed reported, was being pushed as part of “the administration’s outreach to pro-Israel groups.” The demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state has long been rejected by Palestinians, since it ignores the Palestinian citizens of Israel and refugees dispersed throughout the world.

The talking point that Hagel strongly believes in Israel’s Jewish character comes from a book in which he wrote: “A comprehensive solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity, which must be assured.”

The fact that Hagel is considered a controversial pick for the position is a clear reflection of the constrained nature of American discourse on Israel and U.S. policy in the region. Hagel represents a slight deviation from Washington orthodoxy, and while these shades of gray mean something in beltway power politics, the difference on the ground is close to meaningless.

So if you were expecting a real debate over Israel and Iran, you might want to think again. Rather, outside of a slight disagreement over sanctions, Hagel appears to be a status quo pick for a President who may not be looking to rush to war, but isn’t looking to alter U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East either.

(Thanks to Nima Shirazi for help with this post)

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Adam and Alex, thanks for continuing the Hagel story as it seems it fell off the mainstream pages a bit. Two observations: 1) Couple what you reported with the acceleration of US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan (as just announced by the President with Karzai ), it seems to me the… Read more »

We went into war with Afghanistan (and later with Iraq) in a heartbeat, no time out for thought, for caution, for planning. $1T or more down the drain, no gain whatever to the USA (as opposed, say, to the M-I-C and the generals). By contrast, we have not yet spent… Read more »

Thanks fellas, this was a well needed post.

Do you agree with the statement that during the discussions of Hagel’s nomination the special relationship was being discussed critically and openly? Raimondo claims: “That has never happened before. The issue of Israel was always considered to be beyond debate, the most recent example of this uniformity of opinion being… Read more »

Everything you say is correct. However, politically Obama cannot use Hagel’s nomination as a platform to argue for a reversal of US policy towards Iran. If Obama wants to do that, and I happen to believe he does, the debate will have to be held later. For now Hagel must… Read more »