The Pentagon chief seeks to reassure worried Middle East allies

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attends a NATO Defense Ministers’ meeting at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on October 21, 2021. REUTERS / Pascal Rossignol / File Photo

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MANAMA, November 20 (Reuters) – US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Saturday sought to reassure allies in the Middle East that President Joe Biden’s administration was committed to the region, despite Washington’s increasing focus on opposing China.

It was unclear how much influence Austin’s speech would have with Washington’s allies in the Middle East, as it was not backed by any announcements of further deployments or sales of new weapons in the region.

Arab Gulf states, which are heavily dependent on the US military umbrella, have expressed uncertainty about Biden’s focus on the region, especially after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. They are now closely monitoring efforts to revive a global power’s nuclear pact with Iran.

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In a speech in Bahrain during a trip to the Gulf, Austin acknowledged concern in the region and globally that the United States was focused solely on China’s challenge.

“Let’s be clear: America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and secure,” Austin said.

He said the United States was committed to confronting Iran, even though Washington is working to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

“We remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue. But if Iran is not willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the necessary options to keep the United States safe,” Austin said.

The Pentagon chief said Washington would come to the indirect negotiations to revive the deal, which begins Nov. 29 in Vienna in good faith.

“But Iran’s actions in recent months have not been encouraging – especially because of the expansion of their nuclear program,” he told Austin.

The Gulf states have called for any agreement to address what they call Iran’s ballistic missile program and destabilizing behavior in the region.

‘Imminent US abandonment’?

While a number of US administrations have tried to shift focus away from the Middle East and towards the Pacific, Biden ended the longest US war in Afghanistan in August.

“There is dismay that the United States is heading out the door. I’m not sure messages address that sense of imminent American abandonment,” said Jon Alterman of the Washington CSIS think tank.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Austin was not expected to take on new commitments in the region during his trip.

Saudi Arabia, one of Washington’s closest regional allies, has been frustrated by the approach of Biden’s White House, which has pressured Riyadh to improve its human rights record and end the war in Yemen.

Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal attended Manama’s security forum and welcomed verbal assurances, but said “demonstrative actions are equally important”.

He mentioned the need to prevent Yemen’s Iran-linked Houthis from getting weapons. Washington is pushing Riyadh to lift a coalition blockade of Houthi-controlled areas, a condition of the ceasefire negotiating group.

Austin was due to visit Saudi Arabia in September, but the trip was postponed at the last minute. He will not visit Riyadh on this journey.

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Reporting by Idrees Ali; Further reporting by Alexander Cornwell and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Edited by William Mallard and David Clarke

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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