America's allies and partners in the Middle East and elsewhere share deep concerns about the Iranian government's destabilizing actions — including its support for terrorism, its dangerous proxies and its nuclear program, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said.
The secretary delivered a major policy speech on the Middle East and North Africa today at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue 2021 in Manama, Bahrain.
"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. 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.
Next week, Iran's negotiating team is set to return to Vienna, Austria, to restart talks on a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he said.
"We and our partners will return to those talks in good faith. But Iran's actions in recent months have not been encouraging — especially because of the expansion of their nuclear program," he said.
"If Iran comes back with constructive positions, we still think we can quickly resolve our lingering differences to make a mutual return to the JCPOA possible," he added.
Iran's neighbors have tried to talk and improve relations, Austin said. The United States fully supports those efforts.
"We urge Iran to do its part, and to take steps to reduce violence and conflict. But whatever Iran decides, we will continue to work closely with our partners. Iran should have no illusions that it can undermine our strong relationships in this region. And we will defend ourselves, and we will defend our friends and we will defend our interests," the secretary said.
Austin said the Defense Department is working with partners in the region to address threats from Iran, its proxies and terrorist organizations. Those threats include unmanned aerial vehicles, boats loaded with explosives and ballistic missiles.
Working with partners to counter those and other threats includes joint exercises and training in places such as the United Arab Emirates' Air Warfare Center, he said.
"Thanks to our shared investments, our partners here have their own formidable capabilities to handle the dangers from UAVs," he said.
For example, Saudi Arabia's ground and air forces can now take out 90% of UAVs or missiles fired from Yemen and he said the department is working with the kingdom to get that figure up to 100%.
Also, across the Middle East, the department is supporting efforts to better integrate air and missile defenses, to strengthen regional security cooperation and to interdict dangerous material at sea.
"We're going to build on our longstanding investments in this crucial region — in security cooperation, and training, and professional military education, capacity building and intelligence sharing and joint exercises," Austin said, adding that diplomacy is first and foremost the tool of choice.
"America's commitment to helping our friends defend their sovereign space is unwavering," he emphasized.
Austin also touched on a number of other topics.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the United States has donated more than 8.2 million vaccine doses in this region, including donations to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia and Yemen. "We're going to keep driving hard with our partners to end this pandemic."
On climate change, Austin said America is intensely focused on it and that it's an existential threat to everyone.
"All countries will be far less secure in a warming world that's stressed, volatile and chaotic. And it's easy to see the risk of new Middle East conflicts in jostling over resources that span borders," he said.