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Hagel praises deal with Iran, worries about Afghanistan

Nov. 25, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Secretary Of State Kerry, Defense Secretary Hagel,
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday the deal to slow the country's nuclear ambitions poses 'minimal' risks for the United States. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in his first public statements about the high-stakes talks with Iran, said Monday that the deal to slow the country’s nuclear ambitions poses “minimal” risks for the United States.

“Yes, there’s risk in this, of course,” Hagel said in an interview with USA Today. “Nothing worthwhile ever comes without some risk. But I think the risk is very minimal for us in this.”

At his office at the Pentagon, Hagel also talked about the troubled negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reach a deal that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 and discussed the military’s sexual assault crisis.

Iran. The U.S. and other western countries reached agreement with Iran early Sunday to limit its nuclear activities in return for relief from up to $7 billion in sanctions that have damaged its economy. The West believes Iran could be close to building a nuclear weapon; Iran maintains its nuclear aims are peaceful, for energy purposes.

The deal gives both sides six months to hammer out an agreement to roll back Iran’s nuclear program. Assurances, starting with international nuclear inspectors in Iran, will minimize the risk to U.S. interests, Hagel said.

“That’s a big deal,” he said. “That’s the first time that they’re going to have access to areas we’ve never had access to before.”

Hagel said he understands Israel’s opposition to the deal, but said that the two allies agree on the fundamental threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program

Afghanistan. Karzai rejected recommendations over the weekend from Afghan leaders to sign immediately a deal with the Americans. He wants to wait until after presidential elections there in April to approve it.

“We’re not trying to put ourselves in some position to impose dates or mandates, it’s just a practical dynamic of the planning our forces have to make,” Hagel said.

A deal is imperative by year’s end, Hagel said, for the U.S. and other allies to plan for a post-2014 force in Afghanistan. The recommendation from Afghan leaders should prod Karzai to sign, he said. Afghans have to want the deal more than the U.S., he said.

Sexual assault cases. Military leaders have been grappling with increasing reports of sexual assault. This spring, a Pentagon report estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact — from groping to rape — among troops in 2012. That marked an increase of about 30 percent over 2010.

The issue has prompted calls from Capitol Hill, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to remove commanders’ authority to decide which cases go to court martial. She has proposed that special prosecutors handle such cases.

Hagel acknowledged the system the military has set up to handle sexual assault has broken down. “Over the years in this institution, we have seen the accountability on this issue not prioritized, obviously,” Hagel said.

Hagel said he has ordered reforms including assigning lawyers to victims. Top officials also meet weekly on efforts to address sexual assault.

Hagel opposes Gillibrand’s measure, which is scheduled to be considered by the Senate in December. Taking commanders out of the disciplinary process has not been shown to improve reporting of sexual assault among the U.S. allies who have tried it, Hagel said.

Holding commanders accountable for the well being of their troops is key to solving the problem, he said. “They are responsible for their people,” Hagel said. “They are accountable for their people. That’s why I think it would be counterproductive in every way to disconnect commanders from this.”

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