Hagel: U.S. will maintain military presence in Gulf to deter Iran

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The United States will maintain a robust military presence in the Persian Gulf to deter Iran, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, although military action would be a last resort to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

Hagel in a speech Tuesday to the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank described renewed efforts to get Iran to end its suspected nuclear weapons program through diplomacy.

“The United States is clear-eyed about the challenges and uncertainties that lie ahead on this path, and the need for Iran to demonstrate its seriousness through actions,” Hagel said. “We will maintain a strong and ready military presence in the Persian Gulf, and the broader Middle East, to deter Iran’s destabilizing activities, and to work with and protect our allies and our interests.”

Israel, lawmakers in Congress, and pro-Israel groups have urged the United States not to relieve any pressure on Iran during negotiations as long as Iran does not take concrete steps to reduce its nuclear capability.

Hagel also said, describing U.S. policies toward Iran and Syria, where a civil war continues to rage, that a U.S. military option would be a “last resort.”

“Military force must always remain an option – but it should be an option of last resort,” he said. “The military should always play a supporting role, not the leading role, in America’s foreign policy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was reassuring U.S. allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, that the United States would only settle for concrete steps by Iran to end its suspected nuclear weapons program. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful.

“It is only specific actions on which countries will be able to measure an outcome,” Kerry said in Riyadh Monday, where he met with his Saudi counterpart, Saud al Faisal, “and the outcome must be one that allows all of us to know that every day that we wake up we know that what is happening in Iran is a peaceful program and not one where they can be secretly moving towards a weapon that could threaten the stability of this region.”

Kerry headed from Riyadh to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday and Wednesday.

He said negotiations with Iran, renewed last month after Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, expressed interest in such talks, could take months.

Israeli and Saudi Arabian leaders have expressed wariness of extended talks, saying that Iran must not be given time to advance its nuclear program under the pretext of negotiations.

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