US pledges to defend Israel if Iran attacks
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US pledges to defend Israel if Iran attacks

Senior official says military action against Islamic Republic 'always an option,' but nuclear deal reduces likelihood it'll be needed

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Helicopters fly from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during a vertical replenishment with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Gulf of Oman, April 13, 2015. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Fenaroli/US Navy Media Content Services via AP)
Helicopters fly from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during a vertical replenishment with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Gulf of Oman, April 13, 2015. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Fenaroli/US Navy Media Content Services via AP)

WASHINGTON — The United States will defend Israel in the case of an Iranian attack against it, a senior American defense official said Monday, asserting Israel’s right to self-defense and the administration’s commitment to the Jewish state’s military superiority in the Middle East.

The administration respects Israel’s right to self-defense and will continue to ensure the Jewish state’s qualitative military edge, the official told Israeli reporters, arguing that the nuclear deal that the US and five world powers signed with the Islamic Republic last month will make an Israeli military attack less probable.

“We have an ally relationship. The word ‘ally’ means something to us. It means that if you are attacked, we will defend you. That is what an ally relationship means… We use that term sparingly,” the senior defense official said.

“We think that this deal decreases the need and likelihood of an attack. That’s why we signed it. We understand that military action is always an option. It’s an option for the United States,” the official said. “It’s an option for Israel. But the goal is to have an agreement that makes a military attack less needed. But Israel has the right to self-defense. We understand that.”

Washington is “appalled” about the Iranian leadership continuing to call for Israel’s destruction, the representative said, but argued that such utterances should not deter the six world powers from supporting the nuclear accord.

“That is not the way countries should act in today’s world,” the official said of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s calls for Israel’s annihilation. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sign a deal that helps decrease the likelihood of them becoming a nuclear state. That’s the very reason we signed it.”

The senior defense official, who accompanied US Secretary Ashton Carter during his recent visit to Israel, said that there had been no discussion during the trip of an American compensation package to assuage Israel’s fears over the Iran deal.

“We talked about extensive cooperation and additional areas of focus for that cooperation. There was literally no discussion of a deal,” the official said. The US is ready to discuss upgrading its annual defense aid to Israel even after the US Congress affirms the nuclear deal, the official added. American commitment to maintain “Israel’s qualitative military edge started long before this deal and will continue long after this deal.”

Speaking to the Israel Diplomatic Correspondents Association, the senior defense official said officials in Jerusalem had expressed concern over additional American military assistance to the Gulf States, but added that only Israel would receive the F-35 fighter jet.

“There is no sale of the F-35 to anyone other than Israel even contemplated at this time in the Middle East. So reports of the F-35 to Egypt are erroneous and incorrect,” the official continued.

The Iran deal is meant only to stop Iran’s bid for a nuclear weapon and does not claim to curtail the regime’s support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the senior official said, adding, however, that Washington has taken and will continue to take steps to counter that. “We can’t talk about it publicly, but we have taken action to make it clear that we will not accept this kind of behavior, that provisional support.”

Regardless of the agreement, the US is not expecting Iran “to radically change its behavior,” the official said. “We are trying to curb off a critically important security issue — the nuclear issue — and bring that issue out into the open, bring some visibility and some transparency. We don’t believe that Iran is transformed, that leadership wants peace and harmony. That does not mean we believe that Iran is somehow transformed, that their leadership somehow wants to create peace and harmony.”

The senior defense official rejected Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s claim, made a few weeks ago in a conversation with Israeli reporters, that while Israel sees Iran as part of the problem, the US sees it as part of the solution.

“I don’t think we see Iran as part of the solution right now,” the official asserted. “Sure, we hope that at some point in the future they’ll change their behavior, from the senior levels down, but in the meantime we are negotiating on a critical security issue and that is what this deal is about. I don’t think that we have any illusion that Iran is going to radically change its role in the international community.”

A delegation of the Israel Diplomatic Correspondents Association is currently in Washington for a series of briefings with senior administration officials, US lawmakers and Jewish community officials to learn more about the discussion surrounding the Iran deal and other issues of importance to the bilateral relations. The week-long trip, the first of its kind, was funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The meetings were arranged independently by the IDCA.

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