Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel will likely be the first American defence secretary, if approved, to back the so-called “Global Zero” movement that supports reducing the number of US nuclear weapons.
Global Zero members believe that stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, securing all nuclear materials and eliminating all nuclear weapons is the only way to end the nuclear threat, including proliferation and nuclear “terrorism.”
The movement, joined by almost 300 world leaders and more than 400,000 citizens worldwide, was launched in Paris in December 2008.
Hagel had previously co-authored with other public figures the 2012 Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report that outlined a step-by-step plan to eliminate nuclear weapons, involving bilateral negotiations with Russia to be followed by other key countries.
In March 2009, the movement sent letters to President Obama and ex-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stating that "global zero will not happen overnight or unilaterally."
In an interview with Al-Jazeera in 2009, Hagel emphasized the growing proliferation dangers currently facing the United States amid the growing access to nuclear weapons technology by “rogue states and non-state actors.”
“Let’s begin with the two nuclear powers [Russia and the US] that now are responsible for ninety-six percent of the nuclear weapons in the world,” he said during the interview.
“How can we preach to other countries that you can’t have nuclear weapons but we can and our allies can? There is no credibility, there’s no logic to that argument.”
According to the New York Times, previous secretaries of defence have paid “lip service” to Washington’s commitment under the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty to eliminate its nuclear arsenal; however, nothing has been achieved in reality.
Iran’s nuclear dilemma
Hagel, 66, told Congress that if confirmed as the next US defence secretary he would ensure America’s military is prepared to strike Iran if necessary, but stressed the need to be “cautious and certain” when contemplating the use of force.
He also assured that the United States would maintain an "unshakeable" commitment to Israel’s security and voiced support for President Obama's position that no options should be taken off the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Obama is also reportedly a supporter of the Ground Zero position.
"If confirmed, I will focus intently on ensuring that (the) US military is in fact prepared for any contingency," Hagel wrote, according to a copy of the questions and answers obtained by Reuters.
"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."
The last round of negotiations between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ended in Tehran with no deal in January, awaiting a second meeting on 12 February.
According to AFP, it was unclear what went wrong this time, but in the past Iran has insisted that the agreement include clauses that could infringe on the IAEA's ability to conduct proper inspections.
Iran incessantly denies having worked on devoting nuclear energy for military purposes.
At their last meeting, held in Moscow in June, Tehran rejected P5+1 calls for it to scale back its nuclear enrichment activities, while asking for substantial sanctions relief.
The Islamic Republic's economy is currently struggling to survive with punitive measures adopted by the US and the EU targeting its key oil sector and access to international financial markets.
On 13 January, Israel's Premier Benjamin Netanyahu told Army Radio that he "will not interfere" in the political appointments of the US President, although many Republicans claim that Hagel has at times opposed Israel's interests.
As a US Senator, Hagel voted repeatedly against US sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme and made remarks about the influence of what he called a "Jewish lobby" in Washington. Hagel has stated that his record shows "unequivocal, total support for Israel" and that he had "said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism."
Republican-led battle in Congress
Hagel has faced tough questions from the Senate committee that must approve his nomination to the post of secretary of defence.
Republican members, who hold 45 out of 100 seats on the committee, slammed Hagel for questioning the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, which he initially supported.
Asked about "lessons learned in Iraq," Hagel noted the need for proper planning for post-combat situations, something even war supporters acknowledge was lacking.
"I believe we must think very carefully before we commit our armed forces to battlefields abroad," he said. "Our forces deserve policies and planning worthy of the sacrifices they make in combat."
Senate Democrats, who hold the majority, continue to support Hagel’s nomination, and no Democrat has said he or she would vote against the president’s pick for his second-term national security team.
In his written responses, Hagel said he fully supported the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly and outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's move to end the ban on women in front-line combat positions.
He also echoed Pentagon opposition to automatic spending cuts due to kick in on 1 March that he said would be "devastating" to the Pentagon and harm military readiness.