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US Secretary of Defense Esper meets King Salman, asks NATO to protect Saudi Arabia from Iran

President Donald J. Trump watches as new Secretary of Defense Mark Esper delivers remarks Tuesday, July 23, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman received US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in his office on Tuesday to discuss strategic cooperation between Riyadh and Washington, state news agency SPA reported.

“Today, I discussed the deployment of US forces and equipment to #SaudiArabia with @KingSalman,” Esper tweeted following the meeting.

The meeting, where top officials from both countries were also present, also tackled joint security and defense issues and the situation in the region.

“We agree with the need to take a firm defensive stance in the region to deter Iranian malign behavior and promote stability,” he added.

Esper then met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to review bilateral relations, particularly in the military and defense sectors, as well as a number of issues of mutual interest and regional and international developments.

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The US defense secretary arrived in the Kingdom a day earlier on an unannounced visit, with tensions simmering between Washington and Tehran, and Russia seeking to boost its influence in the Middle East.

US-Iran tensions have risen to new highs since May 2018, when the Trump administration withdrew from an international accord that put limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.

As reinstated sanctions put pressure on Iran’s economy, there have been a series of attacks which Washington and close allies blame on Tehran. Iran denies responsibility.

Also on Tuesday, the US defense secretary visited the Prince Sultan Air Base, where he met with troops and assessed the capabilities that the US has deployed to the region to help defend Saudi Arabia, deter Iran and prevent conflict.

Esper got a look at one of the Patriot batteries as he toured the military base.

Esper said he will urge allies later this week to contribute more to the defense of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region to counter threats from Iran.

The plan is part of a broader US effort to get NATO allies to take on more responsibility for Gulf security. That has included US pleas for nations to send ships, aircraft and air defense systems to the region.

The US has already agreed to send three Patriot missile batteries, dozens of fighter jets and other aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

He says the Saudis will “help underwrite” some of the US costs for the additional aid, which includes about 3,000 American troops.

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© 2019 the Arab News