WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Israel, Germany, Britain and the NATO headquarters in Belgium in the coming week for talks with government and military leaders, the Pentagon announced Thursday.
The highest-ranked official of the administration of US President Joe Biden to visit Israel, Austin will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, where discussions will cover “shared priorities” and reaffirm Washington’s commitment to Israel maintaining military superiority over its neighbors, according to a Pentagon statement.
The trip coincides with rising tensions between Israel and Iran just as the Biden administration tries to engage Tehran over returning to the nuclear pact effectively torn up by former president Donald Trump.
Israel is vehemently opposed to the move and Netanyahu warned Wednesday that Israel will not be bound by a revitalized nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, declaring that the Jewish state is obligated only to defending itself against those who seek to destroy it.
“A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us,” Netanyahu declared.
The visit also comes amid indications the Israel-Iran conflict was increasingly being waged at sea, marking a change in the conflict that previously took place primarily via airstrikes, cyberattacks, alleged espionage activities and on land.
Iran on Thursday vowed to retaliate for a recent attack on an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, blamed on Israel.
Brig. Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi told Russian news agency Sputnik that Iran was investigating Tuesday’s attack on the Saviz and would not retaliate until the competition of the probe.
“If we uncover the source of the attack on the ship, we will definitely respond, we will never be silent,” he said, adding that he believed Israel and the US were behind the incident.
The Saviz, which was reportedly hit by a limpet mine, has allegedly been used for years by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a command-and-control center for its operations in the region.
A US official told The New York Times on Tuesday that Israeli forces carried out the attack.
Israeli officials have refused to comment on the matter, in line with a longstanding policy of ambiguity regarding its military actions against Iran in the region, save for those that are direct, immediate retaliations for attacks on Israel.
Israel and Iran have accused each other recently of attacking a number of merchant ships, damaging them with explosives. The vessels in each case were only lightly damaged and there were no reported injuries in the incidents.
In Europe, Austin will hold talks with German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Chancellery Foreign and Security Policy Advisor Dr. Jan Hecker, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and British defense minister Ben Wallace.
Austin will leave Washington on Saturday, but the dates for his stops in each country were not given.
In Europe it comes as Russia has sent shivers across the continent with the massing of troops and war equipment along its border with Ukraine.
“Russia now has more troops on the border of Ukraine than at any time since 2014,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday, saying Biden was “increasingly concerned.”