DoD News Briefing

June 17, 1997 - 8:30 a.m.
Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

[This press briefing occurs from Manama, Bahrain.]

Ambassador Ransom: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen will make a short statement and then give you a chance to ask a few questions. Thank you very much.

Secretary Cohen: Thank you very much Mr. Ambassador. First, I'd like to thank the Amir, Shaikh Isa, the Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad, and Defense Minister General Khalifa for the kindness and courtesy that they have shown me during this visit.

The defense relationship between the United States and Bahrain is nearly fifty years old and has never been stronger. I want to thank the Amir and the people of Bahrain for the support they have given to our forces, particularly, the Fifth Fleet. Bahrain does all that it can to welcome our Sailors and Marines and makes our forces here as effective as possible. Our defense relationship demonstrates a long-term U.S. commitment to Bahrain's security. It also demonstrates America's enduring commitment to stability in the Gulf.

People sometimes ask me, what threats does the United States face today nearly ten years after the conclusion of the Cold War? One challenge is very clear - the threat of instability in the Gulf, where Iraq and Iran violate international norms of good behavior. Iraq's refusal to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions, and its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction show that Saddam Hussein remains a threat to peace and stability. Iran continues to sponsor terrorism and in addition is developing weapons of mass destruction, improving missiles that can strike neighboring nations, and boasting of its ability to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Over the last few years Iran has concentrated on developing a more robust anti-ship missile capability. It has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles on the shore. This year it has sharply increased training launches of sea launched cruise missiles, and just recently it successfully tested an air launched anti-ship cruise missile. Iran's words and actions suggest that it wants to be able to intimidate its neighbors and to interrupt commerce in the Gulf The United States will not allow this to happen

The United States retains overwhelming naval strength in the Gulf and we are fully capable of protecting our ships, our interests, and our allies. America's power in the Gulf rests on our resolve, the quality of our forces, and the support of our allies. This visit has reaffirmed that Bahrain and the United States remain strong friends and allies. As one sign of our close relations, last evening I delivered a letter from President Clinton to the Amir, inviting His Highness to Washington to visit later this year. This once again reaffirms how high we hold Bahrain's friendship, how strong our relationship is and continues to grow even stronger each day, and I welcome your questions.

Q: When did Iran test the new missile and can you tell us whether or not it was developed in Iran or China?

A: My understanding is that it is a Chinese missile. It was tested most recently I believe - Admiral Fargo can give you the specific dates on it and any technical information you'd like about it - but it is a new weapon system recently acquired by Iran.

Q: Does it bother the United States (inaudible)?

A: Any time a nation aquires a new technology, it causes us to watch it very closely, but we have no doubt that we have the capability to defeat any weapon system that the Iranians might possess. It complicates operations somewhat, but not to the extent that it can't be overcome, and after discussing this with Admiral Fargo and others, I am satisfied that the United States has the full capability to defeat any operation that the operation the Iranians might seek to launch against us or our allies;.

Q: I'm sorry. If I might just ask one more. Have any of the leaders you have met expressed unhappiness or dissatisfaction with resolutions passed by the council in Jerusalem on Israel and the Peace Process and (inaudible) are they pushing the United States, the administration on those questions to bring pressure on Israel (inaudible) the Peace Process?

A: I think most of the nations in the region are concerned that the Peace Process has not been on track, that the resolution that was passed by the House would not contribute to getting the Peace Process back on track, and as I've indicated before, that resolution does not reflect the Administration's policy.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what degree of concern have you found during your tour of the Gulf of a really good measure - degree of concern about Iran's military build-up especially as opposed to other aspects of their relationship with the United States.

A: I think all of the nations in the region are concerned about the acquisition on the part of Iran of greater technology - of their attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction. I think that is of general concern of all of the countries in the region. So they each have expressed some concern about that.

Q: Are you referring directly to the development of (inaudible) conventional ones?

A: Well conventional weapons in the sense of chemical weapons, biological weapons. It's clear to us that Iran has been trying to acquire them as well as Iraq, and so they are of concern to these nations.

Q: A question about dual containment.

A: All of the countries that I have visited remain solidly united with the United States in terms of our position, and we expect that to continue. We believe that Iraq, through Saddam Hussein, continues to pose a threat of instability in the region; continues to post a threat to Kuwait, and potentially to Saudi Arabia. We also believe that Iran, by the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction - by their continuing support of terrorism poses a threat of instability. Would all of the nations in the region like to see a better relationship with Iran? I think the answer is 'Obviously', but there have been no signs yet that have been demonstrated that Iran intends to change its policy as it pertains to its relations with its neighbors. So until such time as we see demonstrable evidence of such a change, I think all of the countries here are very solidly united with the United States that they must be resisted in terms of their efforts.

Q: How long does it take Gulf States to defend itself and defend the region security and stability - without the support of the United States?

A: I think that all of the Gulf States rely very heavily on the presence of the United States to provide the kind of security arrangement that currently exists. Many are seeking to build up their own forces to higher levels, to elevate the training, to acquire more sophisticated technology that would be fully integrated into the equipment of United States; but we intend to remain a steadfast and loyal ally to the countries of the Gulf and we have a long term commitment. We intend to keep that commitment and, so it will be a partnership well into the future, so we do not expect any of the individual nations to have to operate on their own, independently. We expect them to be united and work in partnership with the United States, and we intend to maintain a long-term commitment to this region,

Q. For ever (inaudible)?

A: Well, for as long as necessary. As long as there is a threat of instability, then the United States will be here to protect its own vital interest and that of its allies.

Q: Mr. Secretary, how do you see military cooperation developing between the United States and Bahrain, as well as the United States and the GCC countries?

A: The relationship between the United States and Bahrain has again, never been stronger. We have a relationship that goes back nearly fifty years, and it will continue to develop. As I indicated, I delivered a letter from President Clinton to the Amir last evening, inviting him to Washington, and so that they can build their friendship even further, and that would, I think, reflect the nature of the relationship we have with all of the Gulf states.

QMr. Secretary, in recent days Qatari officials have expressed concern that the United States is headed towards a clash with Iran. Would you care to respond to those concerns?

A: Well, the United States is not headed toward a clash with Iran unless Iran were to precipitate such action. What we have tried to do is to indicate to all of our allies that we are here to provide security against the kind of aggression that might be directed toward them, and that we have the finest military in the world. We have a very significant presence thanks to the support of nations like Bahrain and the other Gulf states, and we seek to deter any action by either Iraq or Iran. If there's going to be any clash it will have to be precipitated by actions on the part of the Iranians to the extent that they intend to continue their support of terrorist activities, to the extent they continue to develop weapons of mass destruction, we will continue to seek to deter them. So our policy is not to clash with Iran but rather to discourage and deter any action on their part that would seek to destabilize the region itself.

Q: Mr. Secretary, how satisfied are you with troop projection measures in the region, and do you think that there are further threats of terrorist attacks on U.S. military personnel? Especially here in Bahrain we hear that sailors have been prohibited to go on shore. Are these regulations still in place, and do you think that they are enough if they are, or what should be done, particularly in Bahrain?

A: Well, we are always concerned about the safety and security of our forces. We have very capable and able leadership under Admiral Fargo, who is here, and can talk at some length about the kind of measures that have been taken. I received a fairly extensive briefing yesterday about the improvements that have been made in terms of protecting our forces. One can never provide a hundred percent protection in any area of the world, but measure have been taken and have strengthened this protection that we provide for our sailors and marines. There has been an effort made to try to accommodate the liberty needs of our sailors and marines and I believe that in appropriate balance has been struck. But obviously we are here to project power, and we are here to protect our forces, and those are preeminent among our concerns.

Q: We understand that there's a move to redistribute the five point one billion dollars in aid which currently is allocated to Israel and Egypt to the other Gulf states. Could you confirm this move?

A: There is an effort to help Jordan, and we intend to pursue a policy of providing financial assistance to Jordan because of the needs of their economy.

Q: I'm wondering if the subject of Gulf War illnesses has come up in any of your talks, and if so if maybe you've heard any new theories or speculation on what might be making so many veterans sick?

A: There has been no discussion on that subject while I've been here.

Q: There has been a lot of discussion about the relations between Israel and Syria. Do you see any realization of what Israel sees as a security threat from Syria at this point in time?

A: From Syria?

Q: Yes.

A: I have not seen any increased threat from Syria to Israel. I think the process has not been again on track. Syria plays a role in promoting Middle East peace, and one cannot be achieved without Syria's participation. But I don't believe that there has been any increased or enhanced security threat from Syria that I'm aware of in recent weeks.

Q: What is your policy toward improving Middle East relations?

A: Well our policy toward improving relations in the Gulf obviously continue, and what we hope to do is to encourage both sides, the Palestinians and the Israelis, to get back on the peace path as such that has gotten off tract. I think restraint has to be shown by both sides because the only stability we can have in the Middle East is if we pursue that path of peace.

Q: How do you evaluate the fact that the GCC countries are coming closer to entering relations with Iraq.

A: With Iraq?

Q: With Iraq.

A: I'm not aware that there has been a closer relationship that hits been occurring with Iraq. I think most of the countries in the Gulf are concerned about the people of Iraq as opposed to Saddam Hussein, and indeed the United States has tried to demonstrate over and over again that our quarrel is not with Iraqi people, but with Saddam Hussein's activities to seek to destabilize the region, and that is the reason why we have supported some relief to the people of Iraq itself But we are going to insist that Saddam Hussein comply with all of the U.N. resolutions, and there can be no relief from the sanctions on a wholesale basis by any means until such time as full compliance is made by Saddam Hussein.

Q: Mr. Secretary, so you see any possibility of reduction in US troops in the Gulf?

A: I do not foresee that possibility. I think that we have a very strong presence now; that that presence is adequate; that I do not anticipate any reductions in the future unless there were to be a significant improvement in the stability of the region to the extent that Saddam Hussein were to change his policies or the people of Iraq were to change their leadership; to the extent that Iran were to pursue policies which were quite different than they're pursuing today, then obviously in the future that would bode well for the security of the region. But right now, as long as those two countries pose a threat to the stability and security and peace of this region, we will maintain an adequate presence to deter any aggression.

Let me just conclude by once again thanking the leadership of Bahrain, and the people of Bahrain, for the friendship they have extended to the United States and the assistance they have extended to us. We support them very strongly. Whatever difficulties they have, we are in their corner to support the people of Bahrain, and we want to make that very clear - that we consider them to be a very strong, reliable ally and partner, and we're going to build upon that partnership even more in the future.

Q: Thank you.