Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has stopped in Israel to reassure officials of the U.S. commitment to the strategic partnership between the two nations, as the White House seeks to restart the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
The two-day stop is the first visit to Israel by a senior member of the Biden administration.
On Sunday, Mr. Austin met with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz, and called Israel a “major strategic partner” of the United States.
“Our bilateral relationship with Israel in particular is central to regional stability and security in the Middle East,” Mr. Austin told reporters after the meeting. “I reaffirmed to Minister Gantz that our commitment to Israel is enduring and it is ironclad.”
Mr. Gantz said Israel views the United States as a full partner across all operational threats — not the least, Iran.
“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security to the entire Middle East and to the State of Israel,” he said. “We will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the U.S., prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel.”
The two defense chiefs — both retired military generals — also discussed the continuing normalization discussions between Israel and Arab countries in the Middle East.
Mr. Austin is expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit, the first leg is a trip that will include stops in Germany, NATO headquarters in Belgium and the United Kingdom.
President Biden said he is prepared to reverse former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, which aimed to ensure Tehran doesn’t develop a military nuclear program. Mr. Biden said Iran must first comply with the deal’s terms, but Tehran insists that the U.S. first lift sanctions imposed by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, when it was first proposed during the Obama Administration and his opposition has not lessened over the years.
In a April 8 speech at the Yad Vashem memorial during the country’s Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, the prime minister said Israel is not bound by deals between any other country, including the United States and Iran.
After visiting Israel, Mr. Austin is expected to travel to Germany, where he will meet with Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The Department of Defense said Mr. Austin will stress the importance of the bilateral defense relationship between the two NATO allies and U.S. force posture in Germany and elsewhere.
Also on the agenda will be discussions about their “shared strategic rivals,” presumably Russia and China.
While in Germany, Mr. Austin will visit with officials at the headquarters for U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command, where he will highlight his vision for security interests in the region, officials said.
He then will travel to Belgium to meet with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to discuss how the alliance is tackling “destabilizing behavior” from Russia, a rising and aggressive China and global challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change, Pentagon officials said.
The final stop on Mr. Austin’s trip will be the United Kingdom, where he will discuss the U.S.-U.K. defense alliance with British Defense Minister Ben Wallace.