MANAMA (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates defended Israel’s nuclear program on Saturday, saying the Jewish state did not seek to destroy its neighbors or support terrorism, unlike Iran.
Asked at the Manama Dialogue conference whether he thought Israel’s nuclear program posed a threat to the region, Gates replied: “No, I do not.”
The statement was greeted by laughter from a room filled with government officials from Middle Eastern countries.
Israel is widely assumed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal, but refuses to confirm or deny it. Washington has long avoided pressing Israel to go public with its capabilities.
Gates did not specifically mention Israel’s nuclear weapons or arsenal, but responded to questions about its “nuclear program” — giving the Pentagon chief room to dismiss any suggestion that he implicitly confirmed the existence of nuclear weapons in Israel.
He dismissed the allegation that the United States applied a double standard on the nuclear issue by supporting Israel while calling for Iran to abandon its enrichment activities, which Tehran says are for peaceful purposes.
“Israel is not training terrorists to subvert its neighbors. It has not shipped weapons into a place like Iraq to kill thousands of innocent civilians covertly,” Gates said.
“It has not threatened to destroy any of its neighbors. It is not trying to destabilize the government of Lebanon.
“So I think there are significant differences in terms of both the history and the behavior of the Iranian and Israeli governments. I understand there is a difference of view on that,” he said.
Iran denies U.S. allegations that it has armed, trained and funded Shi’ite militias in Iraq, blaming the violence in Iraq on the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A year ago, Gates first angered Israelis during testimony to the U.S. Congress by including Israel in a list of nuclear-armed countries in the regions around Iran to explain why Tehran might have sought the means to build an atomic bomb. He has not publicly discussed it since.
Israel admits to having two atomic reactors, describing them officially as research facilities. Its refusal to discuss any nuclear weapons capabilities or accept international inspections at the facilities is a major irritant for Arabs and Iran, which see it as a contradiction in U.S. policy in the region.
Editing by Andrew Dobbie