US-Israel arms deal steals limelight as Hagel begins first visit to Middle East
TEL AVIV - A major US arms deal with Israel sends a "very clear signal" to Tehran that military action remains an option to stop it from going nuclear, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters on Sunday.
In a two-day visit to Israel, Hagel will seek to counter criticism from some US lawmakers and pro-Israel groups that he is too soft on Iran and too hostile to Israel -- a charge he has vehemently rejected.
Hagel will likely tout the arms deal as a demonstration of Washington's commitment to Israel's security and as a way of countering Iran's military power and nuclear ambitions.
Asked if a multi-billion dollar arms package with Israel was designed to convey a message that a military strike remains an option, he said: "I don't think there's any question that's another very clear signal to Iran."
Hagel was speaking just before his plane touched down in Tel Aviv at the start of a six-day tour of the region focused on plans to sell $10 billion worth of advanced missiles and aircraft to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in a bid to counter the threat posed by Iran.
The deal will see Israel obtaining anti-radiation missiles designed to take out enemy air defences, radar for fighter jets, aerial refuelling tankers and Osprey V-22 tilt-rotor transport aircraft.
It will also see the sale of US F-16 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and sophisticated missiles to Saudi Arabia.
With the Gulf states anxious over Iran's nuclear and missile programs, the Pentagon has agreed to billions of dollars of arms sales designed to bolster the Arab nations' air power and missile defenses.
Details were unveiled on the eve of Hagel's departure on a trip which will focus heavily on tensions over Iran's nuclear programme and the civil war raging in Syria.
American and Israeli leaders have been at odds over Iran, with President Barack Obama's administration arguing that tough sanctions and diplomacy need to be given more time to work.
But Israel, believed to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power, has repeatedly warned that time is running out and has refused to rule out a pre-emptive military strike to prevent Iran from obtaining an atomic weapons capability.
Hagel plans to discuss with his counterparts in the region the final details of the arms deal, and US officials have said it would be months or more for the new weapons and aircraft to be delivered.
The United States and Israel have disagreed over the urgency of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, with Washington maintaining there is still time to see if tough sanctions and diplomacy persuade Tehran to change course.
Hagel is due to tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and meet Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, officials said.
His trip to Israel comes a month after President Barack Obama visited Jerusalem and reaffirmed US backing of Israel while promoting fresh attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
After Israel, Hagel will travel on to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Hagel's visit coincides with growing suspicions that Syria may have used chemical weapons in its fight against opposition forces. Both Britain and France have submitted evidence to the United Nations alleging the regime fired chemical agents.
US intelligence agencies are taking the reports seriously but have to verify if the Syrian government employed some its deadly chemical arsenal, officials say.
The US administration, reluctant to provide arms to the Syrian rebels, has made clear its skeptical view of military intervention. Obama however has warned the Damascus regime that resorting to chemical weapons would constitute a "red line."
Hagel announced last week that he had ordered more US troops to Jordan to help prepare for a range of scenarios in Syria, including securing chemical weapons or handling a spillover of violence from the conflict.
The deployment of a US Army headquarters element brought the American military's presence in Jordan to more than 200.