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Setting the Record Straight On Hagel, Iran Sanctions

Chuck Hagel’s record on Iran sanctions shows a clear understanding of the threat from Iran.
Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R) takes the podium after U.S. President Barack Obama announced the nomination of Hagel to be his new Secretary of Defense, at the White House in Washington January 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)

Since the announcement that President Barack Obama would nominate former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, many have pointed to his past opposition to some Iran sanctions legislation as evidence that, in the words of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), he “does not fully appreciate the dangers of a nuclear Iran or the character of the Iranian regime.”

In an ad paid for by the Emergency Committee for Israel, a menacing soundtrack plays as the narrator contrasts Obama’s support for sanctions with the Foreign Policy Magazine headline “Chuck Hagel Doesn’t Like Sanctions.”

Yet a careful examination of Hagel’s voting record does not reveal a categorical opposition to all sanctions, only skepticism about enacting secondary sanctions without multilateral support, or the teeth that would make them actually work.

As he explained in an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star, "I have not supported unilateral sanctions because, when it is us alone, they don't work and they just isolate the United States."

Moreover, in each instance where Hagel voted against Iran sanctions, the specific issues he raised over sanctions’ efficacy or concerns about the extraterritorial application of U.S. law would prove well founded.

In 2001, Hagel voted against extending the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 (ILSA), renamed the Iran Sanctions Act following Libya’s decision to give up its WMDs. The bill directed the president to sanction foreign companies which provided investments of over $40 million, later reduced to $20 million, towards the development of petroleum resources in Iran. During the committee debate over the measure, Hagel stated,

“I fully agree with the objectives of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). Combating proliferation and terrorism must remain at the forefront of our foreign policy. I do not agree, however, with a “face value” policy that seeks to combat these twin scourges unilaterally. ILSA cannot work. It has not worked. Right objectives but wrong policy.”

Instead, Hagel offered an amendment which would extend the ILSA for two rather than five years, and require the president to submit a report to Congress on the effectiveness of the bill. Rather than displaying an insufficient appreciation for the threat posed by Iran, Hagel merely questions the ILSA’s ability to achieve its objectives.

Hagel’s concerns with the ILSA paled in comparison to those of the European Union. The EU responded to the ILSA’s passage by adopting European Council Resolution 2271/96, which “provides protection against and counteracts the effects of the extra-territorial application” of U.S. sanctions laws, including the ILSA and Cuba sanctions contained in the Helms-Burton Act. The EU also threatened to file a World Trade Organization complaint against the United States due to French petroleum giant Total SA’s involvement in a $2 billion deal to develop Iran’s South Pars gas field. President Bill Clinton was forced to issue a waiver for the project in 1998 and Secretary of State Madeline Albright later promised that similar projects would not be sanctioned. It would take 14 years and the passage of Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) before any entity was subjected to ILSA sanctions.

While the chief goal of the bill was to stunt Iranian oil production, the extent to which this actually occurred is unclear; U.S. Energy Information Administration data shows that Saudi oil production growth only slightly outpaced Iranian growth between 1996 and 2008. In 2007, the Government Accountability Office issued a report calling into question the effectiveness of sanctions in furthering U.S. objectives vis-à-vis Iran. As the broad multilateral consensus that severe sanctions were the correct way to pressure Iran was lacking for much of the past two decades, the impact of the ILSA was modest at best and ineffective at worst.

Hagel’s opponents have also pointed to his failure to co-sponsor the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007 as evidence of his weakness on the Iran issue. However, Hagel was far from the only person to express reservations about the proposed sanctions. The Bush administration itself was wary of certain provisions in the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act which would extend sanctions jurisdiction to foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies and complicate U.S.-Russia civil nuclear cooperation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus on June 17, 2008 asking that they be removed and the bill eventually died. 

Hagel’s last sanctions vote came on July 17, 2008, when he voted against passing an early version of CISADA through the Senate Banking Committee.  Describing his opposition, he stated that the bill "does not sanction Iran. It directly sanctions (U.S.) allies, friends, and others." At the time, multilateral efforts to increase sanctions appeared to be gaining momentum. In March, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1803, targeting a number of Iranian individuals and entities. The previous month, President George W. Bush met with EU leaders in Slovenia, after which both sides announced their commitment to new sanctions should Iran continue to reject international mediation efforts.

It should also be noted that by July 2010 when CISADA was signed into law, the bill bore little resemblance to the one Hagel voted against. The final passage of the bill was also deliberately delayed in order to placate the EU. Most importantly, international attitudes had shifted dramatically in favor of harsher sanctions following Iran’s violent suppression of the Green Movement and the revelation of the underground Fordow site in 2009, as well as Iran’s decision to begin enriching uranium to 20% in February 2010.

Secondary sanctions are often only effective if they are enforced multilaterally. Implemented poorly and without the conditions necessary for success, they prove counterproductive. Enforced too strongly they risk alienating allies and major trading partners.  As Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass noted in 1998, “trying to compel others to join a sanctions effort by threatening secondary sanctions against third parties unwilling to sanction the target can cause serious harm to a variety of U.S. foreign policy interests.” Weak enforcement, on the other hand, can erode U.S. credibility and can project weakness.

International opinion regarding the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program has undergone significant changes since Chuck Hagel left the Senate. Indeed, Hagel himself acknowledged in his meeting with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer last week that “the bottom line is the world has changed since 2005, -6, -7. Iran is far more dangerous and far more militant than it was then.”

Unilateral sanctions passed during the Obama administration have been effective in large part because our allies share our concerns over the progress made by the Iranian nuclear program.

The totality of Hagel’s Senate votes also do not indicate an absolute opposition to the use of sanctions. During his tenure he voted in favor of the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act of 1998, the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000, and supported the Iran Freedom Support Act of 2006.

Hagel’s recent assertion that he “completely” supports our current sanctions regime is less of a flip-flop than a reflection of his consistent, sober analysis of how sanctions, especially multi-lateral sanctions, can be best applied to pressure Iran. 

Samuel Cutler is the policy adviser at Ferrari & Associates, PC, a Washington, D.C., boutique law firm specializing in U.S. economic sanctions matters.