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In Middle East, Pentagon chief seeks to reassure concerned allies



© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin attends a NATO Defence Ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 21, 2021. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo

By Idrees Ali

MANAMA (Reuters) – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought on Saturday to reassure allies in the Middle East that President Joe Biden’s administration was committed to the region despite Washington increasingly turning its attention towards countering China.

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

Gulf Arab states, heavily reliant on the U.S. military umbrella, have expressed uncertainty about Biden’s focus on the region, especially after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. They are closely watching efforts to revive a global-powers nuclear pact with Iran.

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

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

He added that the United States was committed to countering Iran, even as Washington works to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

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

The Pentagon chief said that the United States would be coming to the indirect negotiations on reviving the deal on Nov. 29 in good faith.

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

Gulf Arab states have asked to be included in the negotiations, and for any deal to address what they call Iran’s ballistic missile programme and destabilising behaviour in the region.

“IMPENDING AMERICAN ABANDONMENT”?

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

“There’s dismay that the United States is on its way out the door. I’m not sure messaging addresses that sense of impending American abandonment,” said Jon Alterman of the Washington CSIS think tank.

A senior U.S. defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Austin was not expected to make any new commitments in the region on the trip.

Saudi Arabia, one of the United States’ closest allies in the region, has been frustrated by Biden’s approach.

The Biden White House has been pressuring Saudi Arabia to improve its record on human rights, including the release of political prisoners, such as women’s rights advocates, from jail.

Austin was set to visit Saudi Arabia in September but the trip was postponed at the last minute. He will not be visiting Riyadh on this trip.

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