MANAMA - US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel underscored on Friday US commitment to Middle East security despite policy differences over Iran and Syria that have angered Washington's longtime Gulf allies.
His visit to Bahrain, in which he will also speak at the Manama Dialogue security conference, came at a time of regional unease over President Barack Obama's policies ranging from the cautious US response to Syria's civil war to the six world powers' interim deal with Iran on its nuclear program.
Iran, which has long vied with Gulf Arabs for regional dominance, struck an interim deal with the six powers on Nov. 24 under which it is to limit aspects of its disputed nuclear energy program in exchange for some relief from sanctions.
Hagel said the deal represented a "very wise opportunity" to see if Tehran was serious about reaching a comprehensive final accord, to be negotiated in coming months, ensuring it would never turn uranium enrichment to making nuclear weapons.
"Our history in this area is long and proud. Our commitment to our partners in this area speaks for itself and I will assure our partners that we're not going anywhere," Hagel told troops aboard the 40-year-old vessel, recently refitted to be a floating base for anti-mine warfare and special operations.
"This region is dangerous, it's combustible, it's unstable," Hagel said. "But having a steady American hand in this region can help our allies and reassure our allies."
Hagel planned to explain US security thinking in a speech on Saturday to the Manama Dialogue, which is broadly attended by defense figures in the Middle East. He met bilaterally with senior leaders from several countries on Friday.
"We are clearly here at a very important time for the region," a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. "It's a somewhat tense time ... There (are) a lot of questions about US policy, about where things are going, particularly in the wake of the Iran interim agreement."
US officials said Hagel, who knows most of the region's leaders from his time in the US Senate, was seen as the best person to deliver a message of reassurance about America's commitment to Gulf security.
"This is a particular region where the relationship between the defense ministers with the secretary of defense has unique importance," another senior US official said, noting the "uniquely insecure environment" and the large amount of defense trade with the United States.