By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, April 21, 2013 – Israel is Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s first stop during his inaugural trip to the Middle East this week, a visit he said will let the people of Israel know the United States is committed to their security.
The 6-day trip will take Hagel to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to discuss common threats and interests in the region, and to finalize agreements that will boost a range of military capabilities for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“I’m going to Israel first because it is a nation that has had a very special relationship with the United States,” Hagel said on his way to that nation during a briefing with reporters traveling with him.
“It is a nation today in a very dangerous, combustible region of the world, that in many ways finds itself isolated,” he said, adding, “The other countries I’ll be visiting are also allies of the United States, and the common threats that face [them and] Israel … should be seen in a regional context.”
Each nation has its own set of challenges, the secretary said, but overall the challenges are regional and include terrorism and the threat of nonstate actors who would bring down governments and impact societies.
“Those common threats certainly should build a set of common interests, with these countries working together,” Hagel said, “and that’s part of what I will be talking about as I visit each [nation].’
During a presidential trip in March to Israel and Jordan, Barack Obama delivered the same message, the secretary said, adding that during a visit to Turkey this weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry “will be talking about some of the same issues in a different kind of way, but essentially with the same focus of common interests.”
As he spoke with reporters, Hagel extended his thoughts and prayers to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and acknowledging the tireless work of law enforcement agencies in capturing one of the men suspected in the act of terrorism.
“I say this because we are on our way to a very troubled region … but it reminds us that [no] region of the world is … safe from these terrible acts,” the secretary observed, adding, “If nothing else, it reminds us that all 7 billion of us are global citizens and many of us are confronted by the same kinds of threats and insecurities.”
Among the region’s most long-term threats is Iran, Hagel said.
“The Iranians must be prevented from developing the capacity to build a nuclear weapon and deliver it,” he added. “The United States’ policy has been very clear on this and everyone knows it.”
Iran is also a state sponsor of terrorism, the secretary said, “[and] that in itself is a threat not just to the region but to our interests in the region and around the world. When you further expand that threat to the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons,” he added, the dimensions of the threat become pretty clear.
Hagel said he thinks Israel and the United States “see the threat of Iran exactly the same, as do many other countries,” not just those in the Middle East, although the United States seeks more time for diplomacy and sanctions to work to stop Iran from pursuing nuclear capabilities.
“If you stop just for a moment and look at the U.N. sanctions, the international sanctions on Iran, I don’t know of an international regime of sanctions that have been more effective and more unified and tougher than what’s being applied to Iran,” the secretary said.
The sanctions are hurting Iran significantly, he added, but if they don’t work, “… I’ve said, the president’s said, all the leaders of the last couple of administrations have said, that the military option is one option that must remain on the table … but the military option I think most of us feel should be the last option.”
In response to a question about whether Israel could decide to strike out alone against Iran’s nuclear aspirations, Hagel replied that Israel is a sovereign nation and every sovereign nation has the right to defend itself.
“It is clear that Iran presents a threat in its nuclear program,” the secretary said, “and Israel will make the decisions that Israel must make to protect itself and defend itself.”
Certainly Israel has every right and responsibility to make their assessments, Hagel added, “but we’re working very closely and will continue to work very closely with them.”