WASHINGTON - US defence chief Leon Panetta sets off on an international tour Monday that, after Tunis and Cairo, takes him to Israel and Jordan, in a region that feels threatened by Iran’s nuclear program and potential spillover from troubled Syria.
In Jerusalem, the secretary of defense will discuss regional issues with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak, among other leaders of the Jewish state.
“Clearly, we’re gonna talk about Iran,” said one senior US defense staffer, who asked not to be named.
Israeli leaders, who believe Iran’s nuclear program endangers their country’s existence, periodically threaten the Islamic Republic with military intervention. The United States continues to favor sanctions and diplomacy to convince Tehran to renounce its nuclear aspirations.
Israeli and American defense authorities have met several times in recent months, and this latest visit is “a matter of routine business with Israel and the region,” said another senior US defense official.
US and Israeli authorities are also expected to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. Jerusalem has sent reinforcements to the Golan Heights, and has tightened security along its armistice line with Damascus.
A major US ally in the region, Israel receives $3 billion in US military aid each year. Washington recently passed a law allowing Israel greater access to US weapons and ammunition.
Panetta is also slated to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Amman is coping with the presence of some 140,000 and has beefed up security along its border with Syria.
Amman holds “daily meetings to discuss the possibility of deploying special forces (to Syria) if the Syrian regime fails to secure its chemical and biological weapons,” said a source close to the Jordanian government.
Earlier however Panetta will visit Tunisia to welcome what US officials call a “relatively stable and successful transition” to democratic rule.
Panetta is expected to discuss future military partnerships with the North African nation.
In Egypt, Panetta will meet with the head of Cairo’s military government, Marshal Hussein Tantawi, whom he is expected to remind of the armed forces’ commitment to transfer power to a democratically elected government.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi took office in Cairo nearly a month ago.