Hagel: US can support Israel if it strikes Iran

Key Senate committee calls on US to back Israeli action against nuclear program; Pentagon requests $400m. more for Iron Dome

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, March 16, 2013 (photo credit: AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, March 16, 2013 (photo credit: AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

NEW YORK – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House subcommittee on defense appropriations on Tuesday that the US has “the military capability” to back any Israeli action against Iran should President Barack Obama decide to do so.

Hagel was testifying on the Pentagon’s budget before the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee when he was asked about US military support in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran.

He replied that the decision to provide such support rested with Obama, but insisted, “We have the military capability, and we have the ability to provide the president with what’s required to protect the interests of this country and our allies.”

The Pentagon was “able to support whatever policy decisions the president makes,” he said.

On the same day on the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed Senate Resolution 65, sponsored by committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and ranking Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), which called for strengthened sanctions against the Iranian regime and for US backing for any action Israel feels it needs to take “in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.”

The resolution, which has the backing of 80 cosponsors in the 100-member Senate, calls on the US government to provide various forms of support, including military, in the event that Israel feels it must strike Iran’s nuclear program. The resolution is not a legal authorization for the use of force, but rather a policy stance taken by lawmakers.

It garnered the warm support of pro-Israel groups Tuesday.

“The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has sent a very clear and enormously important message of solidarity with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat – which endangers American, Israeli, and international security,” AIPAC said in a statement. It urged “the full Senate to act expeditiously to adopt the resolution.”

In his testimony in the House, Hagel also told the defense appropriations subcommittee he would be visiting Israel in “a few days.” Israeli officials have already said the visit will take place
April 21. The visit is expected to focus on the Iranian nuclear program and the ongoing civil war in Syria.

“Our interests are very clear and common,” Hagel said. “I think the Israelis know that, and we know that.”

The visit is the latest in a series of top-level visits by US leaders in recent weeks, including President Barack Obama in mid-March and Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited twice in late March and early April.

It will also be Hagel’s first visit to the Jewish state since his appointment to head the Pentagon. His past statements criticizing Israel and pro-Israel groups were cited by opponents of his appointment during his confirmation hearings, as was his past skepticism over the use of force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Israeli officials have since said that Hagel’s past skepticism would lend added credibility should the US be forced into a military confrontation to prevent the Iranian regime from developing such a weapon.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency offered details last week of its first-ever budget request to help fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program. Hagel had promised then-defense minister Ehud Barack in a meeting in early March that the US would continue funding joint US-Israeli missile defense programs.

Israel currently has five batteries deployed around the country, and has sought US help in expanding the Iron Dome force to over a dozen.

The Missile Defense Agency request calls for $220 million for fiscal year 2014 and a further $176m. in fiscal year 2015. The request marks the first time that funding for Iron Dome, which has already reached over $480m. since the program’s inception, was included in the administration budget request to Congress.

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