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Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin to visit Middle East as Iran threat builds

Lloyd Austin's visit to the region as Biden's defense secretary is intended as a signal of reassurance as Iran continues to arm and fund proxy militias throughout the region.

WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to the Middle East this weekend to meet with regional leaders and American troops, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

Austin’s trip will provide an opportunity to meet with “the leaders of several key partner nations to reaffirm the enduring US commitment to the Middle East region,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters during a press briefing.

Pentagon officials have yet to reveal the defense chief’s itinerary but say the trip is likely to build on Washington’s efforts to encourage Middle Eastern states to work together on regional security issues, including air defense and combined naval task forces.

Why it matters: Austin’s visit will mark his biggest tour of the region since November 2021 when he sought to reassure regional leaders in Bahrain that the Biden administration was not abandoning its ties in the Middle East, despite recent military drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Pentagon chief, who previously commanded all US forces in the Middle East as the head of CENTCOM during the Obama administration, has spent much of his tenure under President Joe Biden focused on pushing back Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and deterring China’s designs in the Pacific.

With the US military’s footprint in the Middle East at a two-decade low, top brass at CENTCOM have been racing to field-test and adopt new unmanned technology and encourage regional officials to share intelligence to help offset reduced US visibility in the region.

Meanwhile, as diplomatic negotiations aimed at a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran have hit the rocks, Pentagon officials say threats by Iran to its neighbors and US forces in the Middle East are once again on the rise.

Iran continues to arm, fund, direct, and provide drone and missile technology to proxy militias in the region while threatening maritime shipping in the Gulf region, the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy official, Dana Stroul, told reporters today.

“At any given time, there are three or four active threat streams that we are monitoring. It’s not a question of if, but when,” the top US Air Force commander in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, told reporters earlier this month.

Yet the Washington-led effort to isolate both Russia and Iran has left their respective governments with few options but to rely on each other for military hardware — including drone technology and possible fighter jets and air defenses — marking a new chapter in their geo-strategic relations that could destabilize the Middle East, US officials warn.

Iranian threats are now a global challenge, Stroul told reporters in a telephone press briefing on Tuesday. “We now need to rally a coalition not only in the Middle East, but a global coalition to push back on the malign cooperation between Iran and Russia,” she said. “It is reasonable to expect that the tactics, techniques and procedures that the Iranians are learning and perfecting in Ukraine will one day come back to threaten our partners in the Middle East, which is why we are increasing cooperation now.”

Know more: Austin has yet to visit longtime US partner Saudi Arabia, though he has visited the United Arab Emirates. 

The defense secretary's latest visit also comes as crescendoing violence in the West Bank threatens to derail Washington’s efforts to convince additional Arab governments to normalize ties with Israel.

Austin spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant late last week to encourage de-escalation with Palestinian groups.

The Pentagon’s top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, met with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Askar, during the African defense chiefs’ summit in Rome on Tuesday.

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