Pentagon Chief Chuck Hagel held talks in Bahrain Friday to reassure anxious Gulf allies that the U.S. military will maintain a robust regional presence despite a nuclear deal with Iran.
Defense Secretary Hagel conveyed to Gulf leaders at a security conference that the United States remains a steadfast partner and has no plans to scale back its military deployments or weapons sales to the Gulf Arab states, officials said.
“It’s a somewhat tense time for the region. There are a lot of questions about US policy, particularly about where things are going in the wake of the Iran interim agreement,” a senior U.S. defense official raveling with Hagel told reporters.
In private meetings and in a speech Saturday, Hagel seeked “to reassure our partners here that nothing has changed in our defense posture as a result of the recent negotiation and interim agreement with Iran,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Hagel underscored that “we have longstanding commitments here and longstanding partnerships” and “very high ambitions for our defense relations in this part of the world,” the official added.
Hagel’s speech at the annual “Manama Dialogue” organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies underscored the scope of the US security commitment to the region. He outlined the array of American military forces in the area, including more than 35,000 military personnel “in and immediately around the Gulf.” Included in that figure were 10,000 Army soldiers with tanks, artillery and helicopters.
The United States and other world powers reached a November 24 interim agreement with Iran to roll back its nuclear program in return for limited sanctions relief. But the accord, coupled with Washington’s reluctance to take military action against the Tehran-backed Syrian regime, has raised alarms among Gulf States that view Iran as a serious threat.
During his flight to Manama, Hagel spoke about Iran with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, officials said.
Hagel affirmed “the U.S. commitment to the security of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its allies and partners in the Gulf. He also “underscored the United States commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and called the interim nuclear accord a “first, good step,” a Pentagon statement said.
During Hagel’s trip, which also includes Qatar, he is due to visit American troops and meet Bahrain’s ruling family, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister and the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and the UAE, officials said.
Hagel’s tour comes as senior Iranian envoys sought to mend ties in the Gulf, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visiting Kuwait and unveiling plans to travel to Saudi Arabia.
Hagel is the first U.S. defense Chief to visit Bahrain in more than two years. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet Headquarters, a crucial naval hub that oversees aircraft carriers and other warships patrolling the strategic Gulf sea lanes.
Washington views Bahrain of “great strategic importance,” but has withheld some military assistance as part of an effort to urge Manama “to lift restrictions on civil society” and “engage in a deliberate reform process,” U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said.
Source: Al Arabiya; Reuters - Photo: US DoD
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (2nd Left) and Bahrain’s Minister of State for Defense, Lt-Gen Dr. Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa (Left) are greeted by members of the Bahrain Military in Manama December 5, 2013.