Middle East arms deal 'sends signal to Iran'

Military strike is still a possibility, says new Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, who has arrived in the region for a visit that also takes in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

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TEL AVIV // A US$10 billion American weapons sale in the region is a signal to Iran that an Israeli military strike on its nuclear sites remains a possibility, the US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday.

The new Pentagon chief arrived in Israel yesterday on the first leg of a week-long, five-country visit that also takes in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

He is expected to continue discussions on the complex Dh36.7bn weapons deal, which includes the Dh18bn sale to the UAE of 25 F-16 fighter jets and their missiles, and weapons to Saudi Arabia.

More significantly, the deal announced by the Pentagon on Friday also includes the sale to Israel of anti-air defence missiles, tilt-rotor V22 Osprey troop transport aircraft and KC-135 aerial refuelling tankers.

Mr Hagel said: "The bottom line is that Iran is a threat, a real threat. The Iranians must be prevented from developing that capacity to build a nuclear weapon and deliver it."

Asked if the arms sales to Israel aimed to convey that military action against Iran was still on the table should Tehran proceed with its programme, Mr Hagel said: "I don't think there is any question that that's another very clear signal to Iran." However, he said the weapons sale was consistent with Washington's policy of helping Israel to keep its "qualitative military edge".

The concern the US shares with Israel on Iran's nuclear programme, as well as worries over Syria's civil war, will be the focus of Mr Hagel's meetings with Israeli leaders. Mr Hagel is due to meet Moshe Yaalon, Israel's new defence minister, and Shimon Peres, the president, today.

For Mr Hagel, the trip also appears to be an effort to strengthen his ties with Israel's leaders after his appointment was criticised by pro-Israel groups who complained that his support of Israel was inadequate.

Mr Hagel had dismissed those accusations by making clear Israel's security interests were a top priority and taking moves such as making Israel the first country he visits on his trip.

Analysts say the US and Israel both see Iran's nuclear programme as a major threat but disagree on how much time should be given for diplomatic efforts to stop Tehran from developing nuclear arms, with Israel pushing for an earlier deadline on the talks with Iran yielding results.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said: "Obama has been extremely clear that if necessary, the US will take military action, but also that the US has a later so-called red line and more flexibility on the talks."

From Israel's perspective, Mr Alpher said, the arms deal with the Pentagon is a "deterrent message" against Iran, and conveys "that Israel is acquiring weapons that can make it more efficient for it to attack Iran".

Israel, whose hardline leaders view Iran as the main threat to the country's existence, has repeatedly suggested it may go it alone in an attack against Iran should it conclude that international diplomatic efforts are insufficient to stop Tehran from developing nuclear arms.

Last week, during celebrations marking the country's Independence Day, Mr Yaalon said: "The world must lead the campaign against Iran, but Israel must prepare for the possibility that it will have to defend itself with its own powers."

Asked about rekindled Israeli media speculation that Israel may opt to strike Tehran without Washington's blessing, Mr Hagel said: "Every sovereign nation has the right to defend itself and protect itself. Iran presents a threat in its nuclear programme and Israel will make the decisions that Israel must make to protect itself and defend itself."

Nevertheless, he indicated continued US support for diplomatic action, and said a discord remained between Israel and its staunchest ally on how long it will take Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

He said: "When you back down into the specifics of the timing of when and if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon, there may well be some differences."

He said that while a possible military strike should remain on the table, military options "should be the last option".

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