Secretary of Defense Hagel Discusses Syria and Iran at the 2013 Manama Dialogue

Defense officials, military leaders, and security experts gathered in Bahrain over the weekend for the 2013 International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue to discuss security issues in the Gulf. The conference ran from December 6 to December 8, covering a range of regional issues including responses to the ongoing crisis in Syria and the possible threat of Iranian nuclear proliferation. These discussions come while the United States seeks to reaffirm its security commitments to its partners and Iran is working to increase its diplomatic engagement abroad.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave the major opening speech of the Dialogue. Hagel aimed to reassure U.S. allies in the Gulf that, despite negotiations with Iran and a lack of military intervention in Syria, the U.S. would not alter its posture in the region or commitment to regional stability and security. Hagel devoted part of his speech to outlining “the array of American military forces in the region,” calling attention to joint military exercises, and praising both recent weapons system sales to regional partners and a planned footprint expansion for U.S. forces. The most unique recommendation he proposed was to facilitate “the sale of U.S. defense articles through the GCC as an organization.” This shift may be enabled in part by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) decision to form a “unified military command structure,” announced recently at a follow-up conference in Kuwait.

Hagel briefly discussed Syria, which was a major component of the conference’s agenda. He praised the Obama administration’s work with Russia to find a diplomatic solution to the question of Syrian chemical weapons disarmament, positing that the “outcome would not have happened if not for our resolve to use military force.” Hagel further argued that a strong commitment to humanitarian relief would keep the opposition from falling into the “wrong hands” of radical Islamist influence. Concerns about Islamist groups were later echoed by a Dialogue panel discussing the broader impact of the Syrian conflict on the region. Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid Al Attiyah asserted that Qatar had no interest in promoting Islamic radicalism and only sought humanitarian engagement, while Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoyshar Zebari voiced concern about the possibility of the development of an “Islamic emirate.”

The prospects of rapprochement between the United States and Iran, and more specifically the interim nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 in late November, has been a cause of concern for the Gulf Arab states. Hagel spent a considerable amount of his speech addressing this fear, assuring allies that the U.S. believes that “diplomacy cannot operate in a vacuum,” and that ongoing negotiations would always be backed by U.S. presence in the Gulf. He also acknowledged that Gulf partners consider Iran’s possible nuclear program “only one dimension” of Iranian influence on the region’s stability, calling for increased communication and cooperation with respect to allied missile defense capabilities.

Iran was represented by a minor defense official at the Dialogue, but its more significant messaging took place outside the conference hall in Manama. In a move welcomed by the Gulf Arab states, Iran redeployed ten fighter aircraft off of the disputed island of Abu Musa. This news comes as Iran and the UAE are close to reaching a deal that would return Abu Musa as well as two other islands of disputed sovereignty, the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, to the UAE.  Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been travelling around the region in recent weeks, visiting Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar in order to alleviate the fears of Iran’s neighbors about the nuclear deal. Zarif even hinted at expanding relations with Saudi Arabia, remarking in Oman that the Iranians “believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region.”

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