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Media Availability with Secretary Carter En Route to Tel Aviv, Israel

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter
July 19, 2015

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Hi. Well, first of all -- here we are, it's too early for mike drop. First of all, in all seriousness, let me thank all of you, each and every one of you for being along today. It means a great deal to us. We don't take it for granted. And thank you for what you do.

Let me begin on a sad note. Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, the sailor who was injured in Chattanooga, passed away yesterday. And my thoughts and prayers, and those of everyone in the Department of Defense are with the families and friends and fellow marines and fellow sailors and other service members of these five brave and honorable service members.

When I first learned of the attack, I was saddened by the loss, but also really angered at the senselessness of it. I asked -- on Friday afternoon directed the services to take some additional force protection measures at our bases and installations.

And I also asked our services to look at further steps that they might advise be taken, and to get back to me in the next few days with their recommendations. Obviously force protection everywhere around the world, abroad and now at home, is a big priority for us at the department, and will continue to be.

Let me now speak to the trip that we're on. This is a trip that has been in the works for some time. But it comes at a very important moment because of the Iran deal concluded earlier last week.

This is a good deal. It removes a critical element of danger and threat and uncertainty from the region. It does that in a comprehensive and verifiable way by preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

My trip, as I said, will clearly focus on Iran, but also on ISIL, the two principal security challenges the United States and its friends and allies face in the region. And the deal reached with Iran places important limitations, as I said, on Iran.

It places no limitations on the United States or on the Department of Defense, or on what we can and will do with our friends and allies to carry out our strategy in the region.

And that strategy involves a robust posture to support the defense of our friends and allies: to deter aggressive behavior, including by Iran; to counter malign influence, including by Iran; to maintain the military option, which is -- we maintained for quite some time and intend to continue to maintain; to ensure freedom of navigation; and then also, very importantly, to counter violent extremism in the region, including especially ISIL.

Those are the elements of U.S. strategy. And our determination and ability to carry out that strategy is unchanged. And we do that with and in support of our longtime friends and allies, the Gulf countries, other countries in the region, and, of course, especially Israel.

With respect to Israel, first of all, tomorrow I'll travel with Defense Minister Ya'alon to the northern part of the country where we'll have an opportunity to review firsthand what's occurring across the border there, including the threat that Israel faces from Hezbollah, and other matters on the northern border, both with Jordan and with Syria.

I'll also have an opportunity to speak with both Minister of Defense Ya'alon and Prime Minister Netanyahu about regional affairs, our strategy in the region, our capabilities and Israel's capabilities, ways that we can strengthen an alliance and partnership that is now some 80 years strong, bedrock of American strategy in the region, a critical friend, critical ally, and ensuring their QME, helping them to deter and defend from aggression and terrorism, malign influence.

There is a lot we can do, a lot we are doing, but more we can do. And those are the things I'll be talking about with both the prime minister and the defense minister.

And Saudi Arabia, I'll meet with the king and also the defense minister. I spoke with the defense minister yesterday and he asked me whether he should invite the other defense ministers of the GCC. He offered to do that.

And I told him I didn't think that was necessary. This is a holiday time. It has already a bit of an imposition for me. So I told him I appreciated that, but that I would have the opportunity to talk to all of them separately. And then I looked forward to a time when we would all get together shortly, not during their holiday.

But I do appreciate his offer. And I appreciate his willingness and the king's willingness to meet with me during this time. And again, my discussions there will be focused on the two major challenges that American strategy in the region is intended to check, namely Iranian aggression or malign influence on the one hand, and violent extremism, including ISIL, on the other.

From there and we'll go to Jordan. Jordan is a strong, committed, staunch partner of the United States in everything we do in the region, especially in the fight against ISIL. I had the opportunity to meet with King Abdullah last week in Sun Valley.

And there we'll have the opportunity to review with their senior leadership events, particularly those that concern them with respect to ISIL, the coalition campaign against ISIL, and matters up on the northern border.

And once again, as with Israel and Saudi Arabia, we do a great deal, the Defense Department does, with both. And we'll be talking about how not only to continue those activities, but strengthen them.

So with that, let me take your questions. And -- oh, I should say one other thing, which is we have a new assistant secretary here for public affairs in Maura. She has been here for a couple of weeks or so, and is climbing up the great learning curve of the Department of Defense after being way up the learning curve at another of our cabinet departments, but of course, no stranger to defense.

And Peter Cook, where's Peter? Peter, right next to me, our new spokesman, same thing for Peter, knows your business very well. And that was an important consideration of mine in choosing him.

So I'm delighted to have him on-board. And they're both drinking from the fire hose here. And so they'll be assisted by the very able and already consumed the entire fire hose, Steve Warren, whom you know very well. So we've got a great team up here.

But with that, let me answer your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can I ask you something about…

SEC. CARTER: Excuse me one second, I don't know whether you're going to be able to pick this up. Do you want to hold the microphone?

Q: Right after the nuclear deal was signed, you heard the remarks of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He closed those remarks, and this is not verbatim, but I think it was words to the effect that Israel will do whatever is necessary to defend itself.

Earlier this week one of your assistants said that you're not going to change Bibi Netanyahu's mind at all, that you're going to work with him these security concerns and mutual cooperation.

Do you have any fear, any concern that Israel may launch a preemptive strike against Iran?

SEC. CARTER: Well, you know, first of all, I'm not going to change anybody's mind in Israel. That's not the purpose of my trip. The purpose of my trip is to work on all the things that we do together: to guarantee the security of American interests in the region, and very importantly one of those is the security of Israel.

Obviously we believe that the nuclear deal promotes the security in the region, the American strategy and also the defense of Israel. But as I said, friends can disagree. But we have decades of rock solid cooperation with Israel.

And much to work on to continue to strengthen ourselves against Iranian aggression, the potential for Iranian aggression, the potential for Iranian malign activities, and all of the other things that are going on in the region that are concerning to both us and our ally Israel.

And as I said, we can agree to disagree about the deal. We think it's a good deal. But the deal doesn't limit the United States in any way. It doesn't limit what we do to carry out our strategy in the region. It doesn't limit what we can and will do in defense of our good and staunch friend Israel.

So I'll be discussing that with Israeli defense leaders. There's a lot to talk about, as always, with a good friend of many decades.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER: Oh, I'm sorry, (inaudible).

STAFF: Hello, Bob.

Q: Hey, hi. Thanks.

A couple of times here you've mentioned that this deal with Iran does not place any limitations on the U.S. It makes me wonder, do you have in mind the possibility of enhancing in some way or increasing in some way U.S. presence in the Gulf or in the region to compensate for what has happened with Iran?

SEC. CARTER: Well, because of Iran's potential for aggression and malign activities, we're always looking for ways to strengthen our posture there. And, of course, we have another major reason to have a strong posture, and another major ingredient of our defense strategy towards the region, which is countering extremism there.

So for both of those reasons, we're always looking for ways that we can strengthen our posture. And, of course, we do that everywhere with friends and allies, Gulf countries, other countries in the region, and of course, especially our longstanding friend and ally, Israel.

So in all of the stops I'll be making, we'll be discussing ways that we can do more in the future.

Q: (off mic)

SEC. CARTER: Yes. We have a number of things immediately in mind that we're working on with Israel, about their so-called QME, their qualitative military edge, ballistic missile defense, counter-terrorism activities, a whole host of things that we're doing with Israel, and doing more, and prepared to do more.

With Saudi Arabia, at the GCC Summit that the president held with the GCC countries back in May, we discussed a number of steps to take together. And there have been a number of those steps taken and explored since the summit and up until now.

But I'll have an opportunity to speak with the Saudi king and defense minister about them.

But, Bob, they are in such areas as counter-terrorism, special operations forces, maritime security, integrated air and missile defense, cyber.

Jordan, we do a number of things with Jordan. And, of course, Jordan is another very strong member of the 60 or so member coalition fighting ISIL. They've conducted very effective, brave, and numerous air operations there. And we work on border security and other things with Jordan.

STAFF: Phil?

Q: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

Iran's supreme leader came out yesterday pretty strongly and said that the deal will not change Iran's behavior in the region and its work with groups that it supports that are obviously hostile to Israel and to many of the allies that the U.S. has.

I'm wondering, do you expect any change in Iran's behavior following the deal and its support for proxies? And do you expect Iran to spend more on its military in the coming months and years?

SEC. CARTER: Well, neither the deal or everything else we're doing to advance our military strategy in the region assumes anything about Iranian behavior. I think Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz have explained the ways in which the nuclear deal will be verified. It's not based upon trust or a prediction.

And likewise, as I said earlier, there is nothing in those hundred pages that places any limitations upon the United States and what it does to defend its interests, secure its strategy in Middle East region, or defend its friends and allies, including Israel.

So nothing we do is based upon assumptions about the future.

STAFF: Missy?

Q: Thanks. Missy Ryan, Washington Post.

Secretary Carter, can you just tell us a little bit more about the measures that are being taken to safeguard American military facilities? And what more -- how much more you think might be done? I know that Pentagon officials are now working to get you recommendations.

And what is your perspective on the measures that are being taken at state level to protect National Guard personnel and facilities, and make it easier for National Guard personnel to carry weapons?

Do you think there are lessons that the Defense Department can draw from that? Thanks.

SEC. CARTER: Well, we took some steps on Friday that seemed immediately advisable. And as I said earlier, Missy, I've asked the services to quickly, but in a comprehensive way, assess additional things that they might recommend.

I really want to give them the chance to look at -- do an assessment and come back to me with facts and recommendations. And I'll make further decisions down the road on the basis of those service recommendations.

Q: (off mic) what's your perspective on the (off mic)?

SEC. CARTER: Well, certain steps have taken steps -- certain states, rather, have taken steps that are within their authorities. But for the Department of Defense as a whole, I'm waiting to hear from the services until they've had a chance to do an assessment and give me the facts and their recommendations, which, as I said, I've directed them to give me within a few days.

And I'll take them into consideration then.

STAFF: Got time for one more. David?

Q: Hi. David Lerman with Bloomberg.

If I could just return to the Israel question. I'm not sure you answered. Are you concerned that Israel could launch some kind of military action in Iran given that they don't like the Iran deal? And doesn't that threaten to blow up the whole deal?

And can you tell us any more about what you're prepared here to offer Israel in terms of weapons or other aid that might be aimed at circumventing that?

SEC. CARTER: Well, with respect to the first point, we've had discussions with Israel over a number of years now about the so-called military option with respect to Iran's nuclear program.

And one of the reasons why this deal is a good one is that it does nothing to prevent the military option -- the U.S. military option, which I'm responsible for, President Obama charges us with doing, and which we are preserving and continually improving.

And but the point of the nuclear deal is to get the result of no Iranian nuclear weapon without carrying out a military strike, even though we are prepared to do that. I can't speak for Israel as far as their own preparations.

And I didn't get the second part of the question? Oh, what are we going to do -- is there more that we're going to do? Yes.

And that's -- I, in the course of my time in the Defense Department, have been to Israel many times and have had lots of conversations. But this is a very important moment because of the Iran deal, but also because of other things that are going on in the region.

We have a lasting, sustained friendship and commitment to Israel that has weathered decades of different kinds of threats and crises. And so keeping it strong and keeping our military efforts closely aligned with Israel's, helping them and working together -- helping them with capabilities, and also planning together for various contingencies, that's a staple of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

And so we will be doing that and doing more of it.

STAFF: All right. Mr. Secretary, thank you. Thanks, everyone. We'll have time -- we're going to -- got to cut it short there.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER: He's our host. Sorry, Peter.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: OK. Thanks.

You did mention maritime security as something you're going to be addressing. Would that include potential interdiction of any shipments headed towards Iran from North Korea?

SEC. CARTER: I'm not tracking any shipment of that kind. But the maritime security is intended to deal with a number of threats: arms shipments of the kind you talk about; illicit support to terrorist groups; trafficking in people; trafficking in arms; trafficking in narcotics; piracy.

You know, all of these things are dangers on the high seas and areas where we believe the Gulf countries have concerns, those maritime countries. And they share with us a commitment to freedom of navigation in the Horn -- I mean, in the Gulf and in the Horn.

And we work together in those areas now. But there's a lot we can do to strengthen our cooperation. That's why it was on the GCC list, along with counter-terrorism and special operations forces and cyber and so forth; because of its importance for all those reasons, and because there's a lot more that we can do together.

STAFF: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. We'll see you all through the course of the trip.
 

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