JERUSALEM – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Israel on Sunday to begin a weeklong tour of the Middle East as the region grapples with the worsening civil war in Syria and the stubborn nuclear threat from Iran.
Making his first visit to the region as Pentagon chief, Hagel is seeking to demonstrate solidarity between the U.S. and Israel – allies whose relations have been strained over how to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Israel is said to be considering unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, a move that Obama administration officials consider extremely risky.
Hagel comes bearing gifts, including the hope of cementing major arms sales to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that U.S. officials say would bolster each ally’s military capabilities against the “shared threats” of Iran, the Syrian war and terrorism. The $10 billion deal, which requires approval from Congress, would send V-22 Osprey transport aircraft to Israel, 25 F-16 fighter jets to the UAE and F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, among other equipment.
“That’s another very clear signal to Iran” that the United States hasn’t ruled out trying to resolve the crisis with military force, Hagel said en route to Israel, where he was due to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials.
“Israel and the United States see the threat of Iran exactly the same – as do many other countries, not just in the Middle East – so I don’t think there’s any daylight there,” he said.
Later in the week, Hagel is scheduled to stop in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.
The Mideast tour comes just days after Hagel announced that the Pentagon would send 200 U.S. troops to Jordan to assist in providing humanitarian relief to the tens of thousands of refugees escaping the fighting in Syria. The Army troops will set up a small headquarters near the Syrian border and would help the Pentagon “prepare for a number of scenarios,” Hagel said.