Hagel: Military Aid Sends “Clear Signal” to Iran

TEL AVIV (Reuters) -

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Sunday a $10-billion arms deal planned with Arab and Israeli allies sent a “very clear signal” to Iran that military options remain on the table over its nuclear program.

“The bottom line is that Iran is a threat, a real threat,” Hagel, who arrived in Israel on Sunday on his first visit there as defense secretary, told reporters on his plane.

Hagel said on Sunday that the United States and Israel see “exactly the same” threat from Iran, but differ on when it may reach the point of requiring U.S. or Israeli military action.

When asked about renewed debate in the Israeli media over whether Israel might have to strike Iran by itself, Hagel said, “Every sovereign nation has the right to defend itself and protect itself.”

Hagel was due to meet Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Monday and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, with little progress reported at talks this month between Iran and world powers.

The first stop on Hagel’s weeklong Middle East trip came two days after the Pentagon said it was finalizing a deal to strengthen the militaries of Israel and two of Iran’s key rivals — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The deal includes the sale of KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, anti-air defense missiles and tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey troop transport planes to Israel, as well as the sale of 25 F-16 Fighting Falcon jets to the UAE.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia would also be allowed to purchase weapons with so-called “stand-off” capabilities enabling them to engage an enemy with precision at a distance.

Hagel added the military option had been “very clear to Iran for some time” and said the arms deal was a continuation of U.S. policy to maintain Israel’s so-called “qualitative military edge” in the region.

Hagel, who faced resistance during his Senate confirmation hearing this year from lawmakers who questioned his support for Israel, said part of the purpose of his visit was to reassure Israelis “the United States is committed to their security.”

Hagel will also visit Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.