Pentagon Chief tries to reassure Middle East allies amid Iran talks

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought on Saturday to reassure nervous allies in the Middle East that the Biden Administration was committed to the region.

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

He also defended the Biden Administration policy of engaging in talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

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

He said the United States was committed to countering Iran, even as Washington works to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. But there has been little forceful reaction to Iran delaying the resumption of nuclear talks, or to intermittent attacks on US forces in Iran and Syria blamed on Tehran’s proxy militias.

"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 claimed.

The Pentagon chief said that Washington would be coming to the indirect negotiations on reviving the deal starting on November 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 Austin cliamed.

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

Persain Gulf Arab states, heavily reliant on the US military umbrella, have expressed uncertainty about President Joe Biden's focus on the region, especially after the hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan. They are now closely watching efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement known as JCPOA, as Tehran continues uranium enrichment and support for proxy forces throughout the Middle East.

"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," Jon Alterman of the Washington CSIS think-tank told Reuters.

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

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.