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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin commits to Middle East security during Bahrain visit

Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Middle East security during a visit to Bahrain for a global security think tank's annual dialogue on security challenges Saturday.

"America's commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure," Austin said in his remarks at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue held annually in Bahrain.

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Bahraini King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

"So we'll defend our interests in this region," he continued. "And we'll continue to evaluate the right mix of forces to bolster our deterrence against Iran. We'll protect our forces from attack by Tehran or its proxies."

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The remarks on Iran come after the country's top nuclear negotiator pledged late last month to resume talks on its nuclear program before the end of November.

Talks about the United States rejoining the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country limiting its nuclear program, stalled in June after Ebrahim Raisi won Iran's presidential election.

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In May 2018, then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal, calling it "defective at its core." Since then, Iran has stopped complying with the agreement.

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"The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon," Austin said. "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 option necessary to keep the United States secure," he added.

Among other security challenges, Iran has been behind a deadly drone attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman in July, and increasingly used drones for one-way or "kamikaze" attacks in the region, according to a U.S. Central Command report. Meanwhile, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni has been backing Bashar al-Assad's bloody civil war in Syria, approaching its 11th year, and funding brutal Shi'ia militias in neighboring Iraq.

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Austin's remarks also come after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August and amid concerns about terrorism from al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

"We'll work together to ensure that ISIS can't reconstitute itself in Iraq and Syria," Austin said. "And we'll continue to support freedom of navigation in the region's vital waterways. We'll drive to end lingering conflicts. And we'll keep up our relentless focus on counterterrorism, even as we shift to an over-the horizon concept in Afghanistan."

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Austin mentioned other challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

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"Many of today's most urgent dangers just don't care about borders--from the pandemic and climate change to nuclear proliferation, unmanned aerial systems, violent extremist groups, and Iranian support for terrorism," Austin said. "You know, American can't confront these common challenges alone. And so we must tackle shared dangers together -- with the full power of partnership."

He emphasized the importance of alliances, saying that President Joe Biden "has directed his entire national security team to reinvigorate and reinvest in our alliances and partnerships."

In particular, Austin pointed out the coalition to defeat ISIS.

"Its members are training, and advising, and assisting local partners in Iraq and Syria, helping to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS' cruelty, and giving critical services and aid to people freed from ISIS rule," he said.

Austin also mentioned the diplomatic accord with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to normalize relations with Israel.

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