Pentagon chief to head to Middle East next week

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will fly to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel next week

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will fly to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel next week for talks that are expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war, officials said Friday.

“This trip will be the secretary’s third to the Middle East in just over a year, and it will advance America’s regional strategy in that region,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news conference.

The tour was part of “our effort to work in a coordinated manner with allies and partners across the region to address common security challenges,” Kirby said.

U.S. officials have struggled to reassure Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, over an interim nuclear deal with Iran that the Saudis worry will embolden Tehran. The Gulf governments have also been dissatisfied with Washington’s cautious approach to arming rebel forces in Syria.

In Saudi Arabia, Hagel was due to meet with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) defense ministers, a session he proposed during his visit to the region in December, Kirby said.

The meeting will offer a chance for Hagel “to underscore U.S. security commitments in the Middle East and to reinforce the United States' unstinting policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and further destabilizing the region,” Kirby said.

It will be the first U.S.-GCC meeting of defense ministers since 2008, according to Kirby.

The gathering of Gulf ministers will also focus on coordinating “air and missile defense, maritime security and cyber defense,” he said.

From Saudi Arabia, Hagel will travel to Jordan, where he will meet his counterpart there to discuss the raging civil war in neighboring Syria.

“This visit will highlight the U.S. commitment to the defense of Jordan, where more than 1,000 U.S. personnel are on the ground working closely with Jordanian defense authorities,” Kirby said.

Hagel will wrap up his regional tour in Israel, where he is due to meet President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

In Israel, Hagel planned to discuss efforts to bolster Israel’s rocket and missile defenses, Kirby said.

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