U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter Reuters

The Iran nuclear deal does not mean military action is off the table when it comes to stopping Tehran from obtaining an atomic bomb, United States Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Sunday ahead of a visit to Israel.

"One of the reasons why this deal is a good one is that it does nothing to prevent the military option," Carter told reporters on board his flight to the Jewish state, AFP reported.

"We are preserving and continually improving" such a military option should Iran violate the terms of the agreement, Carter said as he kicked off a trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to renew U.S. security commitments in the region following last week’s deal with the Islamic Republic.

Similar comments were made on Friday by White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who told reporters that military options remain available regarding Iran, but the administration is pursuing diplomacy first.

Israel has been strongly critical of the agreement struck between Iran and six world powers that would see Tehran curb its nuclear program in return for a gradual lifting of sanctions.

The Pentagon chief will meet his Israeli counterpart Moshe Ya’alon on Monday before holding talks Tuesday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has called the deal a "historic mistake" and has hinted at a possible military response.

Earlier on Sunday, officials denied that Carter will offer Israel a military arms deal during his visit, nor that the visit is related at all to the Iran deal. 

On Friday, a senior official in Jerusalem implied that the visit is specifically to mend the rift between the U.S. and Israel over the Iran deal through a compensation package, and noted that Jerusalem has refused to yield. 

"Israel explicitly said during a series of closed telephone conversations with officials that at this point it does not want to deal with the issue of strengthening its own security with the help of the United States," the official stated. 

And on Thursday night, Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser, also hinted at a compensation package in remarks to Reuters

"We will...be looking forward - if the Israelis are interested and willing, they haven't said so yet - to discuss with them how we might further deepen and strengthen our security and intelligence cooperation," she said.

Carter's trip to the region will also take him to Saudi Arabia, another country where the nuclear accord has been met with wariness, to reassure Gulf allies that the United States intends to maintain a strong presence in the region.

Because of Iran's "potential for aggression and malign activities" as well as the fight against extremist groups such as Islamic State, "we are always looking for ways to strengthen our posture there", Carter said, according to AFP.

He added that there was "a whole host of things we are doing with Israel", including working "on their qualitative military edge, ballistic missile defense, counterterrorism activities".

As for Saudi Arabia and the five other Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Carter said the U.S. wanted to bolster cooperation in the areas of  "counterterrorism, special operation forces, maritime security" as well as air and missile defenses and cyber security.

Carter is expected to meet with King Salman while in Saudi Arabia and with the king's son and defense minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In Jordan, Carter will visit a military base to meet colleagues of a Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by the Islamic State group.