Hagel Speech on U.S.-Iran Relations at the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Conference on World Affairs
February 22nd, 2007 - KEARNEY, NE - Below is the text of the speech United States Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) delivered today on U.S. - Iran relations at the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s James E. Smith Conference on World Affairs.
“It is an honor for me to be here today at one of Nebraska’s most important and prestigious institutions. For over 100 years, UNK has provided opportunities for Nebraska’s young people and prepared them to be successful and productive citizens. I attended Kearney State in 1965 and my nephew, Josh Hagel, is currently a student at UNK, although Josh’s grade point average is much better than mine.
In my eleven years in the Senate, I’ve had several UNK graduates on my staff and serve as interns in my offices. In fact, my State Director, Todd Wiltgen...the Director of my Kearney office, Julie Brooker...and Jared Blanton in my press office in Washington, DC...are all Kearney natives and UNK graduates. All have served Nebraska with commitment and distinction and I am grateful for their good work.
Thank you for inviting me to the James E. Smith Conference on World Affairs. This Conference has been a source of pride for UNK and Nebraska since it was initiated in 1964. The three goals of the Conference: to introduce important global issues to the students and local community; to expose conference participants to a variety of viewpoints from other countries; and to promote international education...are more important today than at any time in our history. When I attended Kearney State in 1965, the world was far less complicated than it is today. But the world’s new challenges offer us historic new opportunities. If the world is to successfully meet these new challenges, it will require a deep and clear understanding of the world in which we are all competing. That is the value of this conference. Information and shared understanding enhance our understanding and prepare us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.
I want to speak today about a subject that I know is very much on the minds of Americans...and the world...America’s relationship with the Middle East and in particular Iran. This relationship is at the center of some of the most important strategic challenges that America faces today and in the future...energy security...America’s relationship with the Islamic world...and the future of the greater Middle East. Many of the world’s historic and vital interests intersect in the Middle East.
Today, the Middle East is more combustible and dangerous than any time in modern history. It is experiencing political upheaval driven by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious and ethnic differences, radical Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, despair and the war in Iraq.
Forces and events in the Middle East cannot be neatly categorized. The swirl of Middle East history creates layers upon layers of complexity. There is little transparency in the Middle East. That is a reality that is inescapable and cannot be assumed away. To ignore this reality is to risk being trapped by false choices....false choices such as the question, “which is worse – Iran with nuclear weapons or war with Iran?”
These are not our only choices in dealing with the Middle East and Iran. Diplomatic initiatives, UN mandates, regional cooperation, security frameworks, and economic incentives are part of the mix of international possibilities that must be employed to comprehensively address the challenges of the Middle East.
We will fail to protect and advance America’s interests – in the Middle East and around the world – if we allow ourselves to be trapped in a self-constructed world based not on reality but on flawed assumptions and flawed judgment leading to flawed policy and dangerous miscalculations.
The United States must approach the Middle East with a clear understanding of the complexities of the region. Our strategic policies must be regional in scope…integrating Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violent Islamic extremism, access to energy supplies, and political reform into a comprehensive policy equation. This should be developed through consultation, cooperation, and coordination with our regional allies Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel. This will require a new regional diplomatic and economic framework to work within...a new Middle East frame of reference.
Secretary Rice’s recent trip to the Middle East...her fourth trip in five months...is encouraging. However, the focus of the United States on the Middle East must be comprehensive, sustained, and at the highest levels of all the governments involved. This will require a new disciplined follow-through from the Bush Administration that we have not yet seen. I have suggested a Presidential Envoy be appointed to represent the President in the day-to-day bolting together of a Middle East peace process that can win the support of all parties involved.
In the Middle East of the 21st Century, Iran will be a key center of gravity...a significant regional power. The United States cannot change that reality. America’s strategic 21st century regional policy for the Middle East must acknowledge the role of Iran today and over the next 25 years.
To acknowledge that reality in no way confuses Iran’s dangerous, destabilizing and threatening behavior in the region. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and provides material support to Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups. Iran publicly threatens Israel and is developing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has not helped stabilize the current chaos in Iraq and is responsible for weapons and explosives being used against U.S. and Iraqi military forces in Iraq.
Iran must be held accountable for its actions. These actions by Iran are one part of a complicated picture of a country with a three thousand year history, governed by a complex and opaque political structure, burdened by a stagnating economy, and located in a geostrategically unstable region.
As Tom Friedman described in his New York Times column last month, Iran is a country that “regularly holds sort-of-free elections”...where “women vote, hold office, are the majority of its university students, and are fully integrated in the work force”...and whose residents “were among the very few in the Muslim world to hold spontaneous pro-U.S. demonstrations” on September 11, 2001. Friedman is correct in his observation that, “the hostility between Iran and the United States since the overthrow of the shah in 1979 is not organic. By dint of culture, history and geography, we actually have a lot of interests in common with Iran’s people.”
Iran has cooperated with the United States on Afghanistan to help the Afghans establish a new government after the Taliban was ousted. Iran continues to invest heavily in the reconstruction of western Afghanistan.
On Afghanistan, the United States and Iran found common interests – defeating the Taliban and Islamic radicals, stabilizing Afghanistan, stopping the opium production and flow of opium coming into Iran. From these common interests emerged common actions working toward a common purpose. It was in the interests of Iran to work with the U.S. in Afghanistan. It was not a matter of helping America or strengthening America’s presence in Central Asia. It was a clear-eyed and self-serving action for Iran.
Complex sets of factors drive the dynamics inside Iran as well as Iran’s actions in the Middle East.
Iran is not monolithic. Iran is governed by competing centers of power. The President and the parliament – known as the Majles – are elected. But it is the Supreme Council, lead by the Supreme Leader...currently Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei...who serves as the Commander in Chief and has formal authority over Iran’s armed forces and foreign policy. Ayatollah Khamenei has the power to dismiss Iran’s President. A separate elected body – the Assembly of Experts – selects...and has the power to dismiss...the Supreme Leader. Yet another body – the Council of Guardians – screens presidential and parliamentary candidates, and reviews laws passed by the Majles. A third body – the Expediency Council – arbitrates disputes between the Council of Guardians and the Majles. Finally, the principal government and clerical officials from all of these entities have a seat on the Supreme National Security Council.
Power and influence in Iran evolve and shift...and are difficult to understand. Supreme Leader Khamenei did not support President Ahmadinejad’s presidential bid. In December 2006, Ahmadinejad’s supporters suffered major defeats in elections for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts. Last month, an Iranian newspaper owned by Ayatollah Khamenei admonished Ahmadinejad to remove himself from the nuclear issue.
Two-thirds of Iran’s population is under the age of 30. Iran is undergoing a generational shift that will shape Iran’s outlook...and its opinions of the United States...for decades to come. Iran’s young people use the internet in large numbers, wear American jeans, listen to American music and are positive about America and the West. We do not want to lose this pro-American generation by turning them away from us. They are the hope of Iran. They bristle under the heavy yoke of the Ayatollahs’ strident limitations of personal freedom.
Our understanding of Iran is limited and incomplete. We have not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran for nearly three decades. Diplomatic contact at all levels is severely limited. We have no constructive military contact. Economic ties remain essentially severed as well. There is deep distrust and suspicion on both sides regarding intentions and motivations.
Put simply, the United States and Iran do not know one another. This unfamiliarity, distrust, and lack of engagement risks producing disastrous consequences. When countries do not engage, the risk of misperception based on faulty judgments spawns uninformed and dangerous decisions.
The United States needs to weigh very carefully its actions regarding Iran. In a hazy, hair-triggered environment, careless rhetoric and military movements that one side may believe are required to demonstrate resolve and strength...can be misinterpreted as preparations for military options. The risk of inadvertent conflict because of miscalculation is great.
The United States must be cautious and wise not to follow the same destructive path on Iran as we did on Iraq. We blundered into Iraq because of flawed intelligence, flawed assumptions, flawed judgments, and questionable intentions.
The United States must find a new regional diplomatic strategy to deal with Iran that integrates our regional allies, military power and economic leverage.
As Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the President’s nominee to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, responded last week to my question regarding Iran before the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, “Iran should be engaged.” He then went on to condition that engagement.
As the 2006 Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq concluded, “The United States should engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues.”
As the 2004 Council on Foreign Relations report on Iran co-chaired by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski concluded, “It is in the interests of the United States to engage selectively with Iran to promote regional stability, dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, preserve reliable energy supplies, reduce the threat of terror, and address the ‘democracy deficit’ that pervades the Middle East as a whole.”
Our differences with Iran are very real. However, by refusing to engage Iran, we are perpetuating dangerous geo-political unpredictabilities. Our refusal to recognize Iran’s influence does not decrease its influence, but rather increases it. Engagement creates dialogue and opportunities to identify common interests, demonstrate America’s strengths, as well as make clear disagreements. Diplomacy is an essential tool in world affairs using it where possible to ratchet down the pressure of conflict and increase the leverage of strength.
Last December, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki announced that his government would convene a regional conference to strengthen regional support for the stability and security of Iraq. All of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, as well as other key regional and international states and organizations should be encouraged to actively and constructively participate.
A regional conference led by Iraq would be an opportunity for the United States to engage Iran, with an agenda that is open to all areas of agreement and disagreement.
Last month, Dr. Abbas Milani, the co-Director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institute, testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee, saying:
“The US should offer to negotiate with Iran on all the outstanding issues. Comprehensive negotiations are not a "grand bargain." Instead such negotiations can offer [Iran’s leaders] powerful inducements, such as a lifting the economic embargo and even establishing diplomatic ties. But contrary to the "grand bargain" suggestion, central to such negotiations must be the issue of the human rights of the Iranian people. Contrary to the masses of nearly all other Muslim nations, and contrary to the declining popularity of the US in the world, Iranian people are favorably disposed towards the United States. An offer of serious, frank discussions with the regime on all of these issues will, regardless of whether the regime accepts or rejects the offer, be a win-win situation for the United States, for the Iranian democrats and for the existing UN coalition against the regime's adventurism.”
There will be no stability in the Middle East until the broader interests of Iran, the region and the world are addressed.
The United States must be resolute and clear-headed in our dealings with Iran....just as the Administration has been in the latest round of the Six Party Talks regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The agreement that Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill reached on February 13 with his colleagues from China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia reflects the power of adept diplomacy, supported through regional coordination, strengthened by financial pressure, and our military presence in South Korea, Japan and across the Asia-Pacific region.
The United States must employ similar, wise statecraft to redirect deepening Middle East tensions toward a higher ground of resolution. We must be clear that the United States does not seek regime change in Iran. We must be clear that our objections are to the actions of the Iranian government...not the Iranian people. Our decisions to deploy a second carrier battlegroup and other military assets into the Persian Gulf as well as the decision to target Iranian military assistance flowing into Iraq should be coupled with a clear and credible commitment to diplomatically engage Iran. America must have a strategic and comprehensive Middle East framework of resolution using all the levers of influence available to the U.S. and its allies.
The United States must be prepared to act boldly and exploit opportunities to re-frame our relationship with Iran. Engagement should not be limited to government-to-government contact...but rather find new and imaginative ways to reach out to the Iranian people. Part of that initiative could be offering to re-open a consulate in Tehran...not formal diplomatic relations...but a Consulate...to help encourage and facilitate people-to-people exchange. All nations of Europe and most of our allies in the Middle East and Asia have diplomatic relations with Iran.
The failure of Iran to comply with yesterday’s UN Security Council deadline to halt its uranium enrichment activities should be an opportunity for the United States to reaffirm and expand the international consensus to address Iran’s nuclear program. The will of the international community gives credibility to its demands of Iran.
As Dr. Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, wrote in the Washington Post last November:
“A diplomacy that excludes adversaries is a contradiction in terms...Diplomacy – especially with an adversary – can succeed only if it brings about a balance of interests...To evoke a more balanced view should be an important goal for U.S. diplomacy. Iran may come to understand sooner or later that, for the foreseeable future, it is a relatively poor developing country in no position to challenge all the industrialized nations. But such an evolution presupposes the development of a precise and concrete strategic and negotiating program by the United States and its associates.”
Without a wise and integrated strategy, we risk drifting into conflict with Iran.
America’s military might alone will not bring stability and security...to the Middle East. That is an enduring fact of international relations that the late President Ronald Reagan understood well.
Throughout his eight years as President, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a global struggle, the Cold War. It was a war fought using containment, alliances, and political, diplomatic, economic and military power. Yet, nuclear war was averted and no shot was ever fired between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
President Reagan was always clear and resolute that the Soviet Union was our foe....that deep, fundamental differences divided the United States and the Soviet Union. He referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.”
In a speech before the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, President Reagan said:
“I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault - to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
Yet it was President Reagan who, in 1986, almost reached an agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to abolish nuclear weapons. President Reagan understood the need for America to engage...to understand our friends and our adversaries...to explore our options...to identify common interests. President Reagan understood that great powers engage because they are secure in their beliefs and purpose but humble and wise in their policies and actions.
The United States must have a policy on Iran...on Iraq...on the broader Middle East...that the American people understand, and will trust and support. Our words and our actions must seek to make America more secure, and the world more peaceful and prosperous. The world must know that, like all sovereign nations, the United States will defend itself and its interests, but that military conflict will always be the last resort.
The American people are deeply concerned about our direction in the Middle East. The American people expect and deserve a strategy that shows prospects for resolution. A U.S. military conflict with Iran would inflame the Middle East and global Muslim populations, crippling U.S. security, political, economic and strategic interests worldwide. I do not believe that the American people will believe that such an outcome improves America’s security, stability and prosperity.
America cannot sustain political, diplomatic, economic or military engagement in the Middle East without the support of the American people. The rising tensions with Iran, the chaos in Iraq, the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict present a deepening crisis in the Middle East. America’s policies must help lead the region out of the crisis. The American people increasingly understand this present and future danger.
Today, some of America’s own actions are undermining the very interests that we must protect and advance in the Middle East. A recent poll conducted by Zogby International in the countries of Arab allies...Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates...found that only twelve percent expressed favorable attitudes toward the United States. As David Ignatius wrote earlier this week in the Washington Post from a conference in Doha, Qatar, “It isn’t a tiny handful of people in the Arab world who oppose what America is doing. It’s nearly everyone.”
If we lose our ability to influence outcomes in the Middle East, the consequences and implications for America and the world will be severe. We risk unstable energy supplies...growth in radical Islamic terrorism...increasing threats to Israel...and nuclear proliferation.
We are living today at an historic transformational time in history. The great challenges of the 21st century will require U.S. leadership that is trusted and respected, not feared nor resented. America cannot project only military power. Inspirational leadership and confidence in America's purpose, not imposed power, will be essential for world peace. If we fail, we will lose the next generation in Iran and around the world. This would result in a far more dangerous world than any we have ever known.
For the 21st Century, the U.S.-Iran relationship will frame the structure and dynamics of the Middle East. We must be sure of our actions and wise with our words. The prospects for peace that have eluded all nations of the Middle East for so long may be on the edge of a convergence of historic intersects. America can help shape the outcome with active and focused diplomacy...worthy of our heritage.