America’s top defense official vowed Saturday to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and to counter its “dangerous use” of suicide drones in the Mideast, as negotiations remain stalled over Tehran’s tattered atomic deal with world powers.
United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s comments in Bahrain at the annual Manama Dialogue appeared aimed at reassuring America’s Gulf Arab allies and Israel, as the Biden administration tries to revive the nuclear deal which limited Iran’s enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
“The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And we remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue,” Austin told an event put on by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“But if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all of the options necessary to keep the United States secure,” he said.
“Iran should be under no illusion that it will manage to undermine the relationship between the US and other countries in the region,” Austin said, according to the Walla news site.
Austin’s remarks come after the US’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan raised concerns about America’s commitment to the Middle East, as defense officials say they want to pivot forces to counter perceived challenges from China and Russia.
“Let’s be clear: America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure,” Austin said, according to Reuters. “But Iran’s actions in recent months have not been encouraging — especially because of the expansion of their nuclear program.”
The defense chief reiterated that in the opinion of the Biden administration, diplomacy is “the tool of first resort.”
Since then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, a series of escalating incidents have struck the wider Mideast. That includes drone and mine attacks targeting vessels at sea, as well as assaults blamed on Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria.
The US also killed Iranian al-Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani in early 2020, which then saw Iran target American troops in Iraq with ballistic missiles.
In addition, a number of attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities have been blamed on Israel, and since February, Iran and Israel have been engaged in a “shadow war” in which vessels linked to each country have come under attack in waters around the Gulf.
Israel has said it will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, and its military has begun drawing up fresh attack plans for a potential strike on Iranian facilities. Last month the government reportedly allocated billions of shekels toward making those plans viable.
The Pentagon chief was asked why Washington did not respond to last month’s drone attack on a base used by the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State terror group in Syria. The New York Times said Friday the attack was Iranian retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria.
“The United States of America maintains the right to defend itself. And we will defend ourselves and our interests, no matter what, at the time and place of our choosing,” Austin replied.
Under US President Joe Biden, military officials are looking at a wider reshuffling of forces from the Mideast to other areas, though it still maintains a large presence at bases across the region.
Austin hinted at that in his remarks, saying: “Our potential punch includes what our friends can contribute and what we have prepositioned and what we can rapidly flow in.”
“Our friends and foes both know that the United States can deploy overwhelming force at the time and place of our choosing,” Austin said.
Austin’s comments also touched on the ongoing war in Yemen, for which the Biden administration halted its offensive support.
Saudi Arabia has led a military campaign since 2015 against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who hold Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The Houthis have launched drone and ballistic missile attacks on the kingdom to retaliate for a punishing aerial bombing campaign that also has killed civilians.
But while the kingdom constantly refers to every drone and missile fired by the Houthis as successfully intercepted by its defenses, Austin put the rate, instead, at “nearly 90 percent.” The US also withdrew its THAAD air defenses and Patriot missile batteries from Prince Sultan Air Base several months ago.
“We’ll work with them until it’s 100%,” he said.
The Manama Dialogue takes place each year in Bahrain, a small island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia that’s home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. Bahrain also has engaged in a years-long campaign crushing dissent. Activists wrote to Austin before his trip, urging him to raise the detention of prisoners on the island and Bahrain’s involvement in the Yemen war.