Pentagon chief’s trip to Middle East to focus on Iran threats: Official

The Pentagon chief is heading to the Middle East this weekend, where his primary focus will be Iran, a senior US defense official said Friday.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who was previously head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), is scheduled to visit Jordan, Egypt and Israel. Sources familiar with his trip have said that Austin will also stop in Iraq, where US combat troops officially withdrew at the end of 2021.

US troops are still present in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad on advise and assist missions.

Over 30,000 US troops are deployed across multiple bases in the Middle East.

But with Iran enriching uranium at levels close to weapons-grade, its continued support for terrorist groups and proxies across the country, and its supply of drones to Russia, Tehran has become an increasingly acute threat to Washington and its allies.

The Biden administration has long favored a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which Iran claims is for civilian purposes.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, the senior US defense official reiterated the president’s continued desire to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions via diplomacy. “Secretary Austin’s job is to ensure that should the President need other options, there are credible options from the Department of Defense available,” said the official who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

Citing senior Biden administration officials as saying that reviving the 2015 nuclear deal is not currently on the table, the official noted that the Pentagon has been working on the “full constellation” of Iranian threats.

The official pointed to Iran’s cultivation of non-state actors and proxies that threaten the US and its partners, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Tehran’s aggression at sea, cyber threats, drone threats and its ballistic missile program are several other issues the US is working to counter. “Every partner, every capital you visit in the Middle East, will talk about their concerns related to all of these threats,” the official said. “So Secretary Austin will seek to… consult with our partners on how we can most effectively push back and undermine them going forward.”

Senior Biden administration officials were recently in Riyadh, where they met with GCC counterparts for talks on Iran, counterterrorism and addressing other common threats.

That trip, last month, was also meant to signal Washington’s commitment to the Middle East at a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s potential invasion of Taiwan are a main focus of the West.

Austin’s upcoming trip is meant to further signal the US commitment to the region.

“Secretary Austin will convey enduring US commitment to the Middle East and provide reassurance to our partners that the United States remains committed to supporting their defense,” the US defense official said.

Other topics to be raised will include Russia’s war on Ukraine and China’s efforts to expand its regional footprint. “Specifically, what he will say there is that we are not asking for a divorce between our partners and China,” the official said, admitting that the US has its own economic ties with Beijing. “But we will also be honest about certain areas of security cooperation that we think introduce risk to our security partnerships in the Middle East.”

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