US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the United States will maintain a wide array of military forces in the Middle East to ensure security in the region despite diplomatic overtures toward Iran over its nuclear program.
Hagel, in prepared remarks to the Manama Dialogue security forum in Bahrain, said on Saturday that the Pentagon had no plan to adjust its military presence or planning in the region as a result of an interim accord on Tehran's nuclear enrichment program.
Our success will continue to hinge on America's military power, and the credibility of our assurances to our allies and partners in the Middle East.
"We have a ground, air and naval presence of more than 35,000 military personnel in and immediately around the Gulf," he said.
Hagel further added that the interim deal with Iran to roll back its nuclear programme was a risk worth taking but that Western diplomacy should not be "misinterpreted."
"We know diplomacy cannot operate in a vacuum," he said. "Our success will continue to hinge on America's military power, and the credibility of our assurances to our allies and partners in the Middle East."
The Pentagon "will not make any adjustments to its forces in the region – or to its military planning – as a result of the interim agreement with Iran," he added.
In a trip meant to reassure Gulf allies wary of America's diplomatic opening with Iran, Hagel enumerated an array of US weaponry and resources deployed in the region.
The military footprint includes 10,000 US Army troops with tanks and Apache helicopters, roughly 40 ships at sea including an aircraft carrier battle group, missile defence systems, radar, surveillance drones and warplanes that can strike at short notice, he said.
US not in 'retreat'
A senior US defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters the speech sent a message of solidarity to Gulf allies while also conveying a warning to adversaries "that any sort of mythology of American retreat is just wrong-headed."
Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, are concerned over a November 24 interim agreement between world powers and Iran that offers limited relief from Western sanctions in return for Tehran rolling back elements of its nuclear programme.
The nuclear deal has strained US relations with the mostly Sunni Gulf Arab states that view Shiite Iran as a dangerous rival.
Hagel acknowledged "anxieties" in the Gulf were running high. "Questions have been raised about America's intentions, strategy, and commitment to the region," he said.
But he promised the US "will remain fully committed to the security of our allies and our partners in the region."
Although the Pentagon faced the prospect of steep budget cuts, Hagel suggested the big presence in the Middle East would remain a top priority and largely shielded from spending reductions.
In addition to keeping a robust US force in place, Hagel vowed to bolster the military strength of Gulf states, urging regional cooperation on missile defence.
Hagel said he would travel on to Qatar and Saudi Arabia after the Bahrain conference for further talks.