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Hagel: Israel allowed to defend itself against Iran

JERUSALEM -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel held out hope yesterday 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 United States 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.

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. -- AP

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