Hagel Pledges Stronger Ties to Persian Gulf Partners

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed closer ties and improved missile defenses for allies in the Persian Gulf during a visit designed to ease doubts about U.S. commitment to the region.

The U.S. will “place even more emphasis on building the capacity of our partners in order to complement our strong military presence in the region,” Hagel told delegates at the Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain. That will include an effort to better integrate the missile-defense systems used by members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia.

Hagel proposed letting the GCC buy weapons systems from the U.S. as a collective, instead of as individual members. That will enable the Gulf allies “to acquire critical military capabilities, including items for ballistic missile defense, maritime security and counter-terrorism.”

The announcement comes less than two weeks after world powers led by the U.S. reached an agreement with Iran to limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in return for the easing of some trade sanctions. The accord, denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has added to strains between the U.S. and its Middle East allies.

Saudi leaders have criticized the U.S. decision to step back from using force against Syria’s government, an ally of Iran. GCC countries have led support for rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hagel said he’ll visit Saudi Arabia next week for talks on “U.S.-Saudi regional security cooperation.”

Troop Presence

The Pentagon chief promised not to reduce the U.S. troop presence in the Persian Gulf in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran.

“Questions have been raised about America’s intentions, America’s strategy and America’s commitment to this region,” Hagel said today. “The United States has enduring interests in this critical region of the world and we will remain fully committed to the security of our allies and our partners in the region.”

While none of the steps presented today amount to a major reform, they will help shore up an alliance that has begun questioning U.S. commitments, according to a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issues are sensitive.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another GCC member, are already among the biggest customers for U.S. arms companies. The Defense Department said in October it plans to sell $10.8 billion in advanced weaponry to the two countries. The GCC’s other members are Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar.

Defense Conference

Hagel also proposed holding an annual defense ministerial conference between the U.S. and the GCC, with the first to take place within six months -- the same timeframe as the Iran deal.

The GCC, made up of Sunni Muslim-ruled monarchies, operates a combined military force called the Joint Peninsula Shield. It was deployed in Bahrain in 2011 to help enforce a crackdown on protesters led by the country’s Shiite majority, who were demanding civil rights. At least 35 people were killed, and unrest has persisted ever since, with regular clashes between protesters and security forces.

In a meeting yesterday with King Hamad al Khalifa, Hagel talked up “the importance of political inclusiveness for long-term stability,” Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said in an e-mailed statement.

Addressing Instability

Earlier yesterday, Hagel visited about 250 troops on the USS Ponce, docked at the U.S. naval base in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, which is home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“I will assure our partners that we’re not going anywhere,” he said aboard the ship. A strong U.S. presence in the Gulf is “key to working through this instability.”

Hagel acknowledged the concerns of allies in a region he described as “combustible,” while defending the Iran deal. He said it was “a very wise opportunity” to test Iran’s commitment to curbing its nuclear program. The U.S. and its allies say they suspect Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran insists its program is for peaceful civilian uses.

“We are not going to change any of our military posture in this area, or any part of the world, during that six-month period,” Hagel said.

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