By Phil Stewart
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said it plainly just before landing in Israel, where officials are fuming over the Iran nuclear deal: "I'm not going to change anybody's mind in Israel. That's not the purpose of my trip."
Carter, making the first visit by a U.S. cabinet official to
Israel since last week's landmark agreement to curb Iran's
nuclear program, aims instead to move away from political
tensions over the accord to more cool-headed, nuts-and-bolts
discussions on deepening security ties.
Increased U.S. military-related support is expected to be on the table. But Israeli and U.S. officials have played down the prospects of any looming announcements.
"Friends can disagree but we have decades of rock-solid
cooperation with Israel," Carter told reporters traveling with
Carter's mission will not be an easy one.
The United States and Israel fundamentally differ on whether
the Iran nuclear deal makes both countries safer. President Barack Obama says it does; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it does not.
Israel fears that Tehran's economic gains from a lifting of
Western sanctions could boost Iranian-backed guerrillas in
Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. It could also lead to
an arms race with Arab states unfriendly to Israel.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest
authority in Iran, did little to alleviate those concerns in a
fiery speech marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan on
Khamenei said the nuclear deal would not change Iran's
policy in supporting allies in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen,
Lebanon and among the Palestinians.
Obama has stressed that taking the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon off the table increases the security of Israel, the United States and its allies. U.S. officials have also signaled they are not changing a longstanding U.S. defense strategy that is underpinned by the threat of a hostile Iran.
"Neither the deal nor everything else we're doing to advance
our military strategy in the region assumes anything about
Iranian behavior," Carter said.
"There’s nothing in those 100 pages that places any
limitations on the United States or what it does to defend ...
its friends and allies including Israel."
Carter also cited the U.S. commitment to allies to guard
against potential Iranian aggression.
'DON'T ANTICIPATE A SHIFT'
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said Iran was likely to keep trying to take advantage
of fragile states in the Middle East, saying: "I don't anticipate a shift in their activities."
Israel has a strong army, is believed to have the region's
only nuclear arsenal, and receives about $3 billion a year in
military-related support from the United States. That amount is expected to increase following the Iran deal, and Carter cited a range of security issues to discuss.
"We don’t have any big package or announcement or thing to
bring to the Israelis that we’re bargaining over," the senior
U.S. defense official said.
After Israel, Carter will head this week to Jordan and Saudi
Arabia. Iran is the predominant Shi'ite Muslim power, hostile
not only to Israel but to Washington's Sunni Muslim-ruled
Arab friends, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Allies of Riyadh and Tehran have fought decades of sectarian
proxy wars in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former head of
the kingdom's intelligence services, wrote last week that the
nuclear deal would allow Iran to "wreak havoc in the region."
But Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir signaled
a willingness during a visit last week in Washington to discuss
ways to strengthen security ties.
Carter said he aimed to work on advancing commitments made
to Gulf leaders in May when Obama hosted them at Camp David.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Cooney and Howard Goller)