(Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is opening the door for the U.S. to sell missile defense and other weapons systems to a group of U.S.-friendly Gulf nations. The move is intended to help counter Iran's ballistic missiles, even as global powers ink a nuclear deal with Tehran.
In a speech to Gulf leaders Saturday, Hagel makes it clear that the emerging agreement that would limit Iran's nuclear program doesn't mean the security threat from Tehran is over.
Hagel's speech continues a theme he has repeated over the past two days in private meetings with Gulf leaders and in remarks to troops aboard the Navy's USS Ponce warship at the nearby U.S. base. He is countering apprehension in the region that the Iran nuclear deal, coupled with U.S. budget pressures and the drawdown in Afghanistan, could signal a decline in America's commitment to the region.
The Pentagon "will place even more emphasis on building the capacity of our partners in order to complement our strong military presence in the region," Hagel said in remarks prepared for delivery Saturday at a security conference in Bahrain. "Nations are stronger when they work together against common threats."
Washington has pushed for more than 20 years, particularly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, for better defenses among a group of Gulf nations that includes long-time allies Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The latter hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Progress has been limited, in part because of their reluctance to collaborate.
The interim Iran agreement carved out less than two weeks ago by major nations, including the U.S., would freeze parts of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for some relief from crippling Western economic sanctions. The deal may open the door to warmer relations with the West, but it has escalated tensions in the Gulf region, where leaders worry that it could embolden Iran and destabilize the area.
Hagel was speaking at an annual international security forum known as the Manama Dialogue, just across the water from Iran. His broader message was that while Iran's nuclear program is a critical worry, its other conventional missile threats, terrorism links and occasional provocative maritime behavior also greatly concern the U.S. and the region. And those threats are not addressed by the nuclear agreement.
Hagel was also expected to spend a chunk of the speech detailing the strength of the U.S. military in the area, including more than 35,000 air, land and sea forces in and near the Gulf. They include about 10,000 Army troops, advanced jet fighters, more than 40 ships, sophisticated surveillance and intelligence systems, and a broad missile defense umbrella made up of ships, Patriot missile batteries and radars.
The most concrete proposal Hagel outlined is the Pentagon's plan to allow military sales to the Gulf Cooperation Council, so the six member nations can have more coordinated radars, sensors and early warning missile defense systems. While the U.S. can sell to the individual nations, Hagel is arguing that selling the systems to the GCC will ensure that the countries will be able to communicate and coordinate better.
It is unclear, however, how effective that plan will be considering it can be difficult for the six sometimes-combative nations of the GCC - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman - to reach agreements.
Hagel also said he wants the Gulf nations to participate in an annual defense ministers' conference, and would like the first meeting to happen in the next six months.
Hagel is expected to visit Qatar to meet with leaders in the coming days.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)