WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday urged the Obama administration's international and domestic critics to give negotiations with Iran over its contested nuclear program sufficient time and space to play out.
"Engagement is not surrender," Hagel said at a "Defense One Summit," sponsored by a Global Security Newswire partner publication. "It's not appeasement. And engagement is not negotiation."
The Defense secretary said he "felt sorry for Secretary Kerry," given the criticism that top U.S. diplomat John Kerry has received for not having clinched an Iran deal in Geneva last week along with his "P-5+1" partners. The multinational talks are aimed at preventing Tehran from gaining an ability to build nuclear arms in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Iran is discussing that possibility, under the stewardship of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, along with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States -- plus Germany.
Hagel counseled more patience, suggesting that negotiations actually had yet to begin and saying it was unrealistic that they would bear fruit immediately.
"Wait a minute! We've been literally at some kind of an informal, unofficial war with Iran since 1979," he said. "Does anybody really think that we're all going to get together [with] the P-5+1 for a week, and come out of that deal with some tidy little agreement?"
Hagel added that all parties involved have "political issues" to contend with. "This is going to take time, if we're going to be able to move somewhere," he said.
"At the same time, you always keep a ready, capable military that is second to none in the world" as leverage in the talks, Hagel said. He added that recent success in persuading Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal was due in large part to the "real, live threat of military force against Syria."
The Obama administration has taken sharp criticism from Israeli leaders for an alleged willingness to make deep concessions to Tehran on lifting sanctions and allowing continued uranium-enrichment in the Persian Gulf nation.
Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers in both chambers are pursuing legislation to impose new Iran sanctions in hopes of forcing a deal that is stricter on Tehran. Kerry and other administration leaders have warned, however, that any such measures could spoil a potentially fleeting opportunity for an agreement that would rein in Iran's nuclear effort.
Hagel called Iran "a very dangerous, lethal, state sponsor of terrorism" that causes "tremendous trouble all over the Middle East, for us [and] for a lot of nations."
However, he said, "if we can move toward some common interest, to move to some higher ground, to some possible -- potential -- resolution to a problem, aren't we smarter to do that?"