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In Wake Of Iran Deal, Defense Secretary Embarks On Middle East Tour


The nuclear pact with Iran that the U.S. and five other major powers agreed on this week is being denounced by some of Iran's Middle Eastern neighbors. The loudest objections to the deal by far are coming from Israel. Defense Secretary Ash Carter travels there this weekend in what's being seen as a bid to reassure the riled U.S. ally. Carter will also be meeting with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia. NPR's David Welna is traveling with him and joins us now.

And, David, this is Ash Carter's first trip to the Middle East since he replaced Chuck Hagel as defense secretary five months ago - any coincidence that he's going at this moment?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, you know, I think the only plausible explanation for this trip right now is that the United States needs to make amends with some of its closest allies in the Middle East. It's also safe to say, I think, that none of them are happy about this nuclear deal with Iran, which is a nation they all consider a common enemy. I spoke with a senior defense official today who put it this way - a relationship with an ally can bend, but it doesn't break.

But it's clear there was a fair amount of urgency organizing what will be the first visit by a U.S. cabinet official to the region since the nuclear deal was agreed on because the timing of Carter's visit could probably not be worse. It coincides with the end of Ramadan fasting in the Arab Muslim world and the celebrations that follow. As the Pentagon official put it, it's a bit like arriving on Christmas Eve.

CORNISH: First stop - Tel Aviv. But what could Carter do to reassure Israelis?

WELNA: Well, there's been a lot of speculation about whether, when Carter meets with Israel's defense minister on Monday, he might be bearing gifts of goodwill, namely promises of increased military assistance. Israel has been getting about $3 billion a year from the U.S., almost all of it in military aid. It's been asking for that aid to be increased by 50 percent, to $4.5 billion. But the Pentagon official I spoke with says while this is a very sensitive time in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, there will be no huge weapons packages offered during this trip, nor will Secretary Carter try to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he meets with him on Tuesday, to support the Iran nuclear deal. This is a matter in which the Israeli leader and the Obama administration are simply going to agree to disagree.

CORNISH: It also looks like the defense secretary will also try to do some fence-mending when he gets to Saudi Arabia. What's on the agenda there, though?

WELNA: It's a similar handholding approach to what we'll likely see in Israel, saying you may disagree with us about the nuclear deal, but we're still committed to improving relationship with you and finding ways we can work together to confront common security threats such as Iran and the Islamic State. This is a follow-up, really, to the summit that President Obama had at Camp David in May with Arab Gulf State leaders, where they were promised stronger security coordination with the U.S. Israel was not interested in joining those discussions, but U.S. officials hope that secretary Carter's visit will nudge things in that direction. I suspect it may be a bit of walking on eggshells for Carter next week, in both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Welna. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.