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Pentagon chief heads to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia to reassure allies on Iran

| Sunday, July 19, 2015, 7:42 p.m.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Defense Secretary Ashton Carter arrived Sunday in Israel on a mission to reassure nervous allies and Arab partners about American resolve after agreeing to a nuclear deal with Iran.

Carter said he is traveling to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan “at a very important moment because of the Iran deal,” which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned as a threat to Israel.

The Pentagon chief said he will use the visit to discuss ways to improve military cooperation without trying to persuade Israeli leaders to support the deal, which barters an easing of crippling economic sanctions on Iran for curbs on the Islamic republic's nuclear program.

“I'm not going to change anybody's mind in Israel,” Carter told reporters aboard his plane en route to Tel Aviv. “Friends can disagree. We can agree to disagree about the deal.”

Although a Defense official said no new weapon deals for Israel or Arab allies are planned during the trip, Carter said he will discuss ways to bolster Israel's ballistic missile defense and counterterrorism capabilities while protecting the country's “qualitative military edge” in the region.

Carter said the agreement made with Iran by the United States and five other world powers Tuesday is “a good deal” that “removes a critical element of danger, threat and uncertainty from the region.”

The deal “places no limitations on the United States or the Department of Defense” to carry out strategy in the region, which includes countering the “malign influence” of Iran, he said. The United States retains military options, he added.

Netanyahu, in an interview Sunday on ABC's “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” reiterated his opposition to the deal, saying it will pave the way for Iran to develop nuclear weapons and give Tehran billions of dollars to spend on a “war machine.”

“Everybody talks about compensating Israel,” Netanyahu said. “I guess the question you have to ask yourself is, if this deal is supposed to make Israel and our Arab neighbors safer, why should we be compensated with anything?”

Gulf allies, led by Saudi Arabia, have questioned whether Iran can be trusted to honor the accord and how it may use its newfound clout and billions of dollars in revenue in a region ripped apart by sectarian conflicts.

Carter said he plans to meet with King Salman of Saudi Arabia to discuss ways to counter Iranian aggression and combat Islamic State forces.

When asked whether he has plans to increase the U.S. presence in the Gulf region, Carter said, “We're always looking for ways to strengthen our posture.”

For Saudi Arabia, the United States will work to improve counterterrorism activities, maritime security, special operations, integrated air and missile defenses and cybersecurity, he said.

Calling Israel “a critical friend, a critical ally,” Carter said he plans to travel with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon to the country's northern border with Jordan and Syria. The visit will help Carter assess the threat posed by Iran-backed Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.

When asked whether he is concerned that Israel could take preemptive military action against Iran because of the nuclear deal it opposes, Carter said only that military options have been discussed with Israeli officials, and that the U.S. military option is preserved.

“We have a lasting and sustained friendship and commitment to Israel that has weathered decades” of crises, Carter said.

The trip includes a stop in Jordan that will focus on the U.S.-led coalition campaign to defeat the Islamic State, which declared a self-styled caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

“Jordan is a strong, committed, staunch partner of the United States and everything we're doing in the region,” Carter said. The visit will include a meeting with the squadron of a Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by Islamic State forces, said the Defense official, who briefed reporters Friday on condition of anonymity to discuss unannounced plans.

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