By LOLITA C. BALDOR
2013-12-06 06:01 AM
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel faces a tough challenge as he looks to reassure nervous allies in the Gulf that the U.S. will continue its strong military support to the region, even as world powers move forward on the nuclear pact with Iran.
Hagel, who arrived in Bahrain Thursday, is slated to speak to a gathering of Gulf leaders later this week at a security conference. U.S. officials said that he will stress America's commitment to the region, including sales of military weapons and ongoing efforts to improve the region's ability to defend itself.
His visit comes less than two weeks after international leaders reached a deal with Iran that would freeze parts of its nuclear program in exchange for some relief from crippling Western economic sanctions.
The deal, however, has escalated tensions in the region, where leaders worry that it could embolden Iran and destabilize the area.
U.S. officials said Hagel intends to answer allies' questions about America's continued policies in the region and stress that nothing has changed in its defense commitment.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the visit publicly, said that Hagel will lay out new ideas on how countries in the region can better work together on security issues, including missile defense.
They said they expect that Iran will be at the top of the agenda for most of Hagel's meetings with allied leaders. They said that while Hagel understands the deep concerns nations in the region have about Iran, he believes he can make the case for the nuclear deal.
The interim deal reached in Geneva last month is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But a number of Gulf nations worry that a stronger Iran will expand its influence in the region, including efforts to fuel terrorism and uprisings as well as its support of the Bashar Assad government in Syria.
At the same time, Hagel will meet with top leaders from Bahrain and reinforce America's argument that the Sunni Muslim-ruled nation must give its Shiite majority population greater political freedom and more say in the affairs of the kingdom.
Shiites comprise about 70 percent of Bahrain's 525,000 citizens.