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Media Availability with Secretary Carter enroute to Japan

April 6, 2015
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: Well, thanks, I'll be brief on the Asia front because I took the time to really lay things out in the speech. I think it's important to do that for the reasons I said, namely the importance of this region. Even though it isn't in the headlines every day, it is of fundamental security importance to the United States. We have a lot going on out here, so it's important on this first trip, the first of which I'm sure of many, to two of our old and important allies, both of whose heads of state will be coming to Washington shortly. There's lots of business to do to prepare for that. I'm happy to answer any questions you have about that.

Meanwhile, of course, other things are going on everywhere around the world. I'd be happy to answer questions about that as well. I'll just mention that not long ago I spoke to the Saudi minister of defense, just talking to him about our efforts together obviously with respect to Yemen, and also offering condolences for the casualties the Saudi forces have suffered. That's ongoing as well.

With that, let me take any questions.

Q: Bob Burns, Associated Press. Mr. Secretary, question for you about the Iran nuclear deal. As the secretary of defense and as the secretary of defense who has extensive experience with nuclear weapons in particular, do you have any misgivings about the way it has come out thus far, knowing it's not final? For example, the fact that they will get extensive relief from sanctions. Do you have any concerns that they would be able to apply that to other activities that you consider troublesome, such as ballistic missile development?

SEC. CARTER: Well, my responsibility as secretary of defense is to the entire security picture. The nuclear deal of course isn't done yet, so we will see, and its terms are unfolding. They have been described by the president and it is a good deal. That's the way it will be concluded, if it is concluded, which I expect will happen in a couple of months.

My focus as secretary of defense is on the overall security of the region and on all of Iran's behavior, and of all of our partners and allies in the region, and especially in particular our alliance with Israel. It's a very strong security partner. It's one that we are really committed to and is an important responsibility of mine to strengthen. Likewise, with other partners in the Gulf. My conversation with the Saudi defense minister illustrated that earlier today.

So we have lots of important interests in the region to watch out for and to work on. Again, as secretary of defense, I'm very focused on the entire picture and on working with our long-standing friends and allies there on issues of security concern very broadly in the region.

Q: Missy Ryan of the Washington Post. I'd like to ask you about Iraq, Secretary Carter. There have been some reports of troubling abuses in the wake of that Tikrit victory on the part of either Shiite militiamen or Iraqi forces, either abusing Islamic State militants that they have encountered or other kinds of abuses.

What you know about that? And if such abuses are confirmed, what would that mean for U.S. support to Iraqi security forces and their allies in future battles against the Islamic State in Iraq? Thank you.

SEC. CARTER: Well, in the end the taking of Tikrit was accomplished by -- under the command and control of the Iraqi government and by Iraqi security forces. That was a condition for us to assist as we did. It's very important as these objectives are re-taken that -- and we've obviously discussed this with our Iraqi partners -- that in all of these operations avoidance of civilian casualties and proper treatment of the population is an important objective of ours. We talk about that with the Iraqi leadership, and that will be important in the hold phase in Tikrit, and indeed everywhere else where we are pushing back ISIL.

Q: Helene Cooper with the New York Times. I'd like to go back to Iran if we can. You were describing the whole of America security apparatus in the region and it just seemed when we look at Iran right now, I am pretty confused, and I think a lot of people are because we are occupying the same battlespace as Iran and Iraq. We are backing the Saudis as they bomb the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, and now we have just concluded a nuclear deal with Iran as well.

At this point would you describe Iran as a strategic foe of the United States? And separately, as defense secretary, do you feel secure that the nuclear deal that we have just reached with Tehran will not at some point put American troops back in harm's way?

SEC. CARTER: Thank you. The common denominator in our actions in all of the parts of the region that you described is the pursuit of our security interests. One way we advance that is by stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the dangers of which we have highlighted for quite a long time and are many. We do it by assisting a long-time partner, Saudi Arabia, to defend itself, and also to help us in our continuing campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates out of Yemen and is one of the branches of al-Qaeda that is most dedicated to attacks upon the United States. So we are following our national security interests in the region. That's the common denominator to our actions throughout.

I should mention also, since you mentioned it, also Helene, in Iraq and Syria, which is first and foremost the defeat of ISIL. So in all of these things we are behaving in a way where the common denominator is the pursuit of our national interests.

Q: I want to give you a chance to answer Helene's question about the strategic foe before I ask you one of mine.

SEC. CARTER: Well, we have been concerned and continue to be concerned about many aspects of Iranian behavior that are outside of their pursuit of their nuclear program. That has to do with support to terrorism, proliferation of other kinds of military technology, and those concerns don't change simply by virtue of the conclusion of this agreement.

Q: David Lynch with Bloomberg. I want to go back to Iraq for a minute. With the retaking of Tikrit, now the focus turns to the ongoing retraining of the Iraqi security forces. Is it possible at this point to envision a U.S.-supported Iraqi effort to retake Mosul before the summer heat? And do we need to have some better modus vivendi worked out, implicitly or otherwise, with the Iranians before that operation gets underway?

SEC. CARTER: Well, certainly before any further operations that we do in cooperation with Iraqi government, Iraqi security forces is conducted, we will be discussing that with them. Mosul as a military objective, we've said before, will be the subject of an offensive to retake it when we are ready -- that is, specifically when the Iraqi security forces are ready -- and to make that a success.

I might also just add that there are other important objectives as well, and they don't get as much attention because Tikrit has occupied so much of the attention of people to looking to Mosul as well, but there are other locations where we are operating with Iraqi security forces and having some success against ISIL.

So the overall strategy in the next steps will be something that we will be working with our Iraqi partners, with the Iraqi government to decide the timing, the sequence of all the moves to defeat ISIL in the territory of Iraq.

STAFF: Time for one more.

Q: Carla Babb, Voice of America. I just wanted to follow up. General Austin had said something about not wanting to work with Shia militias, that he had been in Iraq before and he had seen what they had done, they were capable of doing. Now we are in a situation where we are working with Shia militias because they are under the Iraqi security forces' leadership, I should say.

How do we make that balance work without bringing back the past? Are we capable of doing that from such a kind of not taking the lead and letting the Iraqi security forces take the lead the same way?

SEC. CARTER: Well, that is going to depend upon the actions of the Iraqi government. Our objective there is for a multi-sectarian government, government of Iraq, to be the one that is conducting operations to expel and defeat ISIL. We are partnering with them.

Do we worry about sectarianism rearing its head again in Iraq? Absolutely we do, but that's the reason why we are supporting a multi-sectarian Iraqi government, why we are trying to work with them closely so that it is conducting itself in a way that is truly multi-sectarian. Because it was sectarianism that brought us where we are.

Q: David Brunnstrom from Reuters. I believe President Obama said earlier today, talked about the need for the U.S. to be sure that Israel maintains a qualitative military edge. Could you give us some indication what he meant by that?

SEC. CARTER: I absolutely can, and one of the important principles of our security partnership with Israel is the so-called -- preservation of the so-called qualitative military edge. We are very dedicated to that. It is reflected in our security cooperation throughout the region.

What it means in a nutshell is that we are committed to assisting Israel to maintain that advantage in the technology and qualitative aspects of military power that will allow them to continue to defend themselves in what is a very dangerous region for them. They're a very close partner of ours. That's been something that I've worked on myself personally with our Israeli colleagues over the years and continues to be, and will continue to be a fundamental principle of our security partnership with Israel.

STAFF: Thank you, guys. We will see you in Tokyo. Thank you for the excellent questions on the Asia-Pacific. Hopefully everybody gets some sleep. Thanks, guys.