Diplomacy with Iran must be backed up by US military might, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said yesterday in a speech addressing Persian Gulf allies anxious over a nuclear deal with Tehran.
Hagel promised the US would maintain a 35,000-strong force in the Persian Gulf region, as well as an armada of ships and warplanes, despite the recent deal with Tehran.
Speaking at a security conference in Bahrain, he said the interim deal with Iran to roll back its nuclear program was a risk worth taking but that Western diplomacy should not be “misinterpreted.”
“We know diplomacy cannot operate in a vacuum,” Hagel said. “Our success will continue to hinge on America’s military power, and the credibility of our assurances to our allies and partners in the Middle East.”
The Pentagon “will not make any adjustments to its forces in the region — or to its military planning — as a result of the interim agreement with Iran,” he added.
In a trip meant to reassure Gulf allies wary of the US’ diplomatic opening with Iran, Hagel enumerated an array of US weaponry and resources deployed in the region.
“We have a ground, air and naval presence of more than 35,000 military personnel in and immediately around the Gulf,” he said.
The military footprint includes 10,000 US Army troops with tanks and Apache helicopters, roughly 40 ships at sea including an aircraft carrier battle group, missile defense systems, radar, surveillance drones and warplanes that can strike at short notice, he said.
“Coupled with our unique munitions, no target is beyond our reach,” Hagel said in an apparent reference to “bunker buster” bombs designed to penetrate deeply buried targets.
He was speaking at an annual conference organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. A senior US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters the speech sent a message of solidarity to Gulf allies while also conveying a warning to adversaries that “any sort of mythology of American retreat is just wrong-headed.”
Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, are concerned over a Nov. 24 interim accord between world powers and Iran that offers limited relief from Western sanctions in return for Tehran rolling back elements of its nuclear program.
The nuclear deal has strained US relations with the mostly Sunni Gulf states that view Shiite Iran as a dangerous rival. The Iran accord topped the agenda in Hagel’s talks with Gulf counterparts on Friday, which included a meeting with new Saudi Arabian Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan.
In the discussion, Hagel stressed “the centrality of the defense partnership in maintaining the long-standing ties” between the US and Saudi Arabia, officials said.
The US government’s reluctance to intervene against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch ally of Tehran, budget pressures and a US “rebalance” to Asia have added to doubts among Gulf governments about US staying power in the region. Hagel acknowledged “anxieties” in the Gulf were running high.
“Questions have been raised about America’s intentions, strategy and commitment to the region,” he said, but he promised the US “will remain fully committed to the security of our allies in the region.”