JERUSALEM (AP) — The top U.S. military officer reassured Israel on Tuesday that it will maintain a military edge over potential adversaries, including Gulf Arab states, regardless of whether Washington completes a nuclear deal with Iran.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Israeli officials raised with him their concern about the scope of U.S. arms sales to Gulf Arab states as they build defenses against an expansionist Iran. The U.S. has long promised to ensure that Israel enjoys a qualitative military edge in the region.
"Israel just wants to make sure that we're not just helping them on the qualitative side," Dempsey told reporters after meeting in Tel Aviv with his counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, and later with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
Israeli leaders want to be assured that as the U.S. helps expand and develop Gulf states' militaries, "that they don't grow so much just simply in size that they become an overwhelming presence in the region," he said.
Dempsey, on his fifth and final visit to Israel as Joint Chiefs chairman, was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. Dempsey is retiring in October.
Netanyahu has been one of the harshest critics of the Obama administration's emerging nuclear deal with Iran, which offers the Islamic Republic sanctions relief in exchange for scaling back its contested nuclear program.
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat, although Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. The Israelis cite hostile Iranian rhetoric, Iran's missile capabilities and its support for violent militant groups - concerns shared by the Obama administration even as it moves toward a deal that leaves key parts of Iran's nuclear program intact.
Dempsey's visit to Jerusalem is the first by a senior American military officer since Netanyahu told a joint meeting of Congress in March that Obama's overture to Tehran would "all but guarantee" that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons. In an explicit challenge to Obama, Netanyahu predicted that a nuclear-armed Iran would turn the Middle East into a "nuclear tinderbox."
Dempsey told reporters in an interview Tuesday that it's too early to know whether Israel's security will be enhanced by a U.S. nuclear deal with Iran.
"If a deal is made ... we need to re-engage with them quickly and comprehensively to make that determination," he said. "It will be incumbent on both of us to make sure that we provide the kind reassurances that the state of Israel has always counted on us to provide. But we are going to have to do the same thing with the Gulf allies."
Dempsey said the U.S. intends to continue helping Israel improve its air and missile defenses and will be talking to the Israelis about ways to improve their cyber defenses, their maritime security and their means of countering the military use of tunnels such as those from Gaza.
Dempsey said he understands why Israelis believe a nuclear deal will give Iran room to accelerate its funding of surrogate Shiite groups like Hezbollah and to put more resources into its own military.
"I share their concern," Dempsey said. "If the deal is reached and results in sanctions relief, which results in more economic power and more purchasing power for the Iranian regime, it's my expectation that it's not all going to flow into the economy to improve the lot of the average Iranian citizen. I think they will invest in their surrogates; I think they will invest in additional military capability."
Dempsey also said he thinks a nuclear deal, taken as a whole, could be beneficial in the region.
"The long-term prospects seem to all of us, privately, that we are far better off with an Iran who is not a nuclear power than an Iran who is a nuclear power."