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The three issues shaping current US Middle East strategy are the US relationship with Israel, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and Iran's "destabilizing" influence in the region, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week. Speaking on May 9 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the nation's capital, Hagel, who just returned from an official trip to the region in late April, said Israel remains the United States' "closest friend and ally." As such, the Pentagon last month announced an arms deal for the Israelis including KC-135 tankers, V-22 tiltrotor airplanes, and anti-radiation missiles and radar upgrades for Israel's fighter jets. "Along with Israel's status as the only Mid-Eastern nation participating in the [F-35] program, these new capabilities will significantly upgrade their qualitative military edge," said Hagel. The violence in Syria, a nation possessing "stockpiles of chemical weapons and advanced conventional weapons," he said, "threatens to spill across its borders." Hagel also said the Obama Administration remains engaged "to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." (AFPS report by Karen Parrish)