Hagel renews Qatar defense pact despite differences over Iran, Syria

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel renewed a defense agreement with Qatar on Tuesday during a visit aimed at showing U.S. commitment to Persian Gulf allies despite disagreements over policies on Iran and Syria.

A day earlier, Mr. Hagel visited Saudi Arabia, which had threatened in October to turn away from the U.S. over its engagement with regional rival Iran and its inaction on Syria.

“We can have differences in our approach,” Mr. Hagel told reporters after touring an Air Force operations center in Qatar. “[But] we’re not going to get disconnected from our allies in the region.”

The Obama administration’s engagement with Shiite-dominated Iran has rankled Persian Gulf allies, who are predominantly Sunni and see Iran as a regional threat.

Iran has sent forces to fight in Syria’s civil war to bolster President Bashar Assad, who is from a Shiite sect, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations have supported Sunni rebels in Syria, some of whom are affiliated with al Qaeda.

Although the U.S. has donated the bulk of humanitarian aid to Syria, officials have been reluctant to get further involved in a civil war that has destabilized the region and claimed the lives of nearly 126,000 Syrians since March 2011.

“Secretary Hagel conveyed that the United States is fully committed to its security partnership with Saudi Arabia and seeks to deepen its cooperation even further,” the Pentagon said Monday. “Secretary Hagel underscored the United States commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and maintaining a strong American defense presence in the region.”

The U.S.-Qatar Defense Cooperation Agreement governs the relationship between the two nations’ military forces, which include “training, exercises and other cooperative activities,” said Pentagon assistant press secretary Carl Woog.

“The agreement promotes cooperation and is a testament to the longstanding security partnership enjoyed by the United States and Qatar,” he said.

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