By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
MANAMA, Bahrain, Dec. 5, 2013 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived here late today ahead of this weekend’s Manama Dialogue, where he will speak on U.S. security strategy in the Middle East.
“Our interests, the United States of America’s interests, are the world’s interests,” he said. “Our interests are not defined by one region or one country or one area.”
Senior officials traveling with the secretary described the major points of his upcoming address as threefold: the U.S. security posture in the region has not changed; the Defense Department seeks to help partners in the region strengthen their own military capabilities; and America will continue to work to strengthen ties with and among the Gulf Cooperation Council states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
“This region has been a priority of his since he came into office,” one official said. As a senator, Hagel led the first U.S. Congressional delegation to the Manama Dialogue in 2004, the official noted.
Hagel “has spent a tremendous amount of energy developing our partnerships in this part of the world,” the official said. During this visit, he said the secretary will listen to allies’ concerns and reassure them that nothing has changed in the U.S. defense posture, long-standing relations, partnerships and the nation’s “high ambitions for our defense engagement in the region.”
The interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program and the ongoing conflict in Syria are likely to be central topics of the secretary’s meetings with other ministers here, the official acknowledged.
On his flight to Bahrain, Hagel spoke by telephone to United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, according to Assistant Pentagon Press Secretary Carl Woog. Hagel underscored to the minister the U.S. commitment to the security of the United Arab Emirates and its allies and partners in the Gulf, Woog said.
Hagel and the Crown Prince also discussed a range of shared security challenges in the region, Woog said, including Iran and Syria, and the two leaders agreed to continue to cooperate closely on these and other mutual interests over the next several months.
Hagel also underscored the United States’ commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and noted that the Joint Action Plan recently agreed to between the P5+1 and Iran is a first, good step towards advancing that commitment, said Woog, noting that Hagel and the Crown Prince agreed to continue close consultation.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry described the agreement reached with Iran last month as “a first step.” Iran has agreed to halt parts of its nuclear program and relinquish its stockpiles of enriched uranium.
Kerry said in November that the “P5+1” countries that have negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program since 2006 — the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany — will “roll up our sleeves and keep working with the parties at the table in order to reach a final, comprehensive agreement that ensures Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon and that the nuclear program that they do have will be entirely peaceful. And that has to be absolutely verifiable.”
In his background remarks today, one official called the agreement a “glimmer of hope in diplomacy with Iran” but added, “The United States is very clear-eyed about the threats.”
Another official said Hagel’s long-standing relationships with regional leaders stemming from his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee contribute to his warm reception here.
Many regional leaders “have indicated that they really trust [Hagel] and respect his voice when it comes to Iran,” the official said. The secretary’s visit here is part of a coordinated outreach effort by the Obama administration to ensure that a message of unwavering commitment “is delivered to all of our Gulf partners,” he said.
Responding to a question on China, the official said the United States “does not recognize … [and] urges China not to implement” the Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which China has declared near a set of islands that Beijing and Japan both claim. U.S. military flights will operate in the area without change, he said.
While in Bahrain, the secretary will visit service members here, particularly those in the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquartered here.
Hagel will travel to Qatar later in the week.
(Follow Karen Parrish on Twitter: @ParrishAFPS)
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