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Pentagon chief says Israel can decide if it must strike Iran.

Last updated: April 21. 2013 11:48PM - 458 Views

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, stands next to Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon as he looks at pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust during a visit to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem on Sunday, April 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, pool)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, stands next to Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon as he looks at pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust during a visit to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem on Sunday, April 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, pool)
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JERUSALEM — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel held out hope Sunday for a nonmilitary way to ending the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, but he also emphasized Washington’s willingness to let Israel decide whether and when it might strike Tehran in self-defense.


Hagel, on his first visit to Israel as Pentagon chief, seemed intent on burying the image that Republican critics painted of him as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state. That portrayal was central to a failed campaign to derail Hagel’s Senate confirmation in February.


In an interview with reporters on his flight from Washington, Hagel said the United States and Israel see “exactly the same” threat from Iran, which he described as a toxic combination of nuclear ambition and support for terrorism.


But he acknowledged differences on when it may reach the point of requiring U.S. or Israeli military action.


Hagel stressed repeatedly that Israel has a sovereign right to decide for itself whether it must attack Iran. He made no mention of the possibility that an Israeli attack would draw the U.S. into the conflict and lead to a wider regional war.


“Israel will make the decision that Israel must make to protect itself, to defend itself,” Hagel said as he began a weeklong tour of the Middle East.


Also Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Istanbul, where he urged Turkey to speed up and cement an American-brokered rapprochement with Israel. On a trip to Israel last month, President Barack Obama secured a pledge from Turkish and Israeli leaders to normalize ties that broke down after a 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.


Hagel said international penalties are taking a heavy toll on Iran, though he said no one can be sure that economic coercion will compel Iran to change course.


Referring to sanctions and diplomacy, Hagel said, “these other tracks do have some time to continue to try to influence the outcome in Iran.”


Hagel’s first order of business upon arrival in Jerusalem was a guided tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust history museum.


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