MANAMA (AFP) - The United States has no plans to scale back its strong military presence in the Gulf despite a diplomatic opening with Iran, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said on Friday.
Speaking to sailors on the deck of a US ship at a naval base in Bahrain, Hagel said the American military would maintain its high-profile role in the region during a six-month interim deal with Iran.
"I will assure our partners that we're not going anywhere," he said before talks with leaders from Bahrain and other Gulf states.
Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, are anxious over a November 24 interim accord between world powers and Iran that offers six months of limited sanctions relief in exchange for curtailing its nuclear programme.
"We are not going to change any of our military posture in this area or any part of the world during that six-month period," Hagel said aboard the USS Ponce.
"We will keep the same kind of strong assets, the same exercises, the same partnerships, the same focus on our strategic interests that we had before we entered into this six-month period," he said.
The US defence secretary flew to Bahrain on Thursday as part of an effort by President Barack Obama's administration to soothe the concerns of allies over the Iran accord.
"It's a somewhat tense time for the region. There's a lot of questions about US policy, particularly about where things are going in the wake of the Iran interim agreement," a senior US defence official told reporters travelling with Hagel.
The symbolic setting for Hagel's remarks, on a naval ship in the Gulf not far from the Iranian coast, reinforced his message.
The USS Ponce is a 42-year-old amphibious dock ship that has been overhauled as a "floating base," used to direct counter-mine operations and ferry special operations forces.
The Ponce played a central role in a major counter-mine exercise in the Gulf last year that involved dozens of other countries and was seen as a warning to Iran.
"This region is dangerous, it's combustible, it's unstable," Hagel said.
"But having a steady American hand in this region to help our allies and reassure our allies is really key to working through this really dangerous instability".
Coupled with Washington's reluctance to take military action against the Teheran-backed Syrian regime, the nuclear accord with the Islamic republic has strained relations with the mostly Sunni Gulf states that view Shiite Iran as a dangerous rival.
"There's concern about the Iran interim deal, there's concern about what's happening in Syria," said a second US defence official, who also asked not to be named.
In a speech Saturday at the annual "Manama Dialogue" organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Hagel will try to make the argument for the diplomatic gambit, while noting that sanctions and a strong military presence have helped exert pressure on Teheran, officials said.
On his flight to Bahrain, Hagel spoke about Iran with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahayan, deputy commander of the UAE armed forces, officials said.
In his phone conversation, Hagel "underscored the United States commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon" and called the interim nuclear accord a "first, good step".
During his trip, which will also include a stop in Qatar, Hagel was due to meet Bahrain's ruling family, Saudi Arabia's deputy defence minister and the foreign ministers of Egypt and the UAE, officials said.
Hagel's tour comes as senior Iranian envoys launched their own charm offensive this week in the Gulf, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announcing plans to travel to Saudi Arabia.
Hagel is the first US defence chief to visit Bahrain in more than two years, with Washington voicing repeated concerns about the Sunni monarchy's treatment of protesters from the country's Shiite majority.
Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet headquarters, a crucial naval hub that oversees aircraft carriers and other warships patrolling the strategic Gulf sea lanes.